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.
And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.
St Kevin and the Blackbird
by Seamus Heaney
And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so
One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
And lays in it and settles down to nest.
Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,
Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.
And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time
From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth
Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,
A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.
I take the snap from the center, fake to the right, fade back…
I’ve got protection. I’ve got a receiver open downfield…
What the hell is this? This isn’t a football, it’s a shoe, a man’s
brown leather oxford. A cousin to a football maybe, the same
skin, but not the same, a thing made for the earth, not the air.
I realize that this is a world where anything is possible and I
understand, also, that one often has to make do with what one
has. I have eaten pancakes, for instance, with that clear corn
syrup on them because there was no maple syrup and they
weren’t very good. Well, anyway, this is different. (My man
downfield is waving his arms.) One has certain responsibilities,
one has to make choices. This isn’t right and I’m not going
to throw it.
Luis Jenkins died in December of 2019. He was celebrated locally, a Minnesota poet, a denizen of our great north woods and a master story teller in verse. How widely known he was outside of Minnesota I don’t know but he had a solid fan base in the upper Midwest. Jenkins rubbed shoulders with other writers and poets in Minnesota and reached a broader audience through his regular contributions on Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor.
Jenkins free-verse poems at first glance do not look like “sonnets”. His careful construction, attention to detail in how they read verbally and length definitely build off the sonnet tradition. If you add up the total number of syllables in many of his poems they are eerily similar in length to a sonnet’s traditional 140.
Free Lawn Mower
by Louis Jenkins
There’s a broken down lawn mower at the curbside with a sign reading “FREE.” And so I ask myself, what does freedom mean to a lawn mower? A lawn mower that has only one job and no outside interests, a job which it can no longer perform? Gone the days of the engine’s roar, the cloud of blue smoke, the open lawn, the waves of cut grass left in its wake, the flying gravel, the mutilated paper cup. Freedom could only mean the freedom to rust away into powder and scale. Most likely the lawn mower will be thrown into the back of a beat-up truck by a guy who sees its potential as scrap, a guy who will seize upon anything of even the slightest value, anything free.
“The only regret I will have in dying, is if it is not for love.”
Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Constancy to an Ideal Object
(Excerpt – last stanza)
by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
And art thou nothing? Such thou art, as when
The woodman winding westward up the glen
At wintry dawn, where o’er the sheep-track’s maze
The viewless snow-mist weaves a glist’ning haze,
Sees full before him, gliding without tread,
An image with a glory round its head;
The enamoured rustic worships its fair hues,
Nor knows he makes the shadow, he pursues!
Where does reality and magical realism intersect? Coleridge poses an interesting question, do we know when we are chasing our own shadows? I think we need to keep the hope of magical realism alive and well as we march into the uncertainty of how long this disruption to our lives is going to last and at what cost? Love, Light and Calm Thoughts sounds a lot like stay calm and carry on. It’s going to be alright, is the balm for our times and a reminder that this too shall end.
The Good, Great Man
by Samuel Taylor Coleridge
“How seldom, friend! a good great man inherits
Honour or wealth with all his worth and pains!
It sounds like stories from the land of spirits
If any man obtain that which he merits
Or any merit that which he obtains.”
REPLY TO THE ABOVE
For shame, dear friend, renounce this canting strain!
What would’st thou have a good great man obtain?
Place? titles? salary? a gilded chain?
Or throne of corses which his sword had slain?
Greatness and goodness are not means, but ends!
Hath he not always treasures, always friends,
The good great man? three treasures, LOVE, and LIGHT,
And CALM THOUGHTS, regular as infant’s breath:
And three firm friends, more sure than day and night,
HIMSELF, his MAKER, and the ANGEL DEATH!
Your hopeless patients will live,
Your healthy patients will die.
I have only this word to give:
Wonder, and find out why?
by Edgar Guest
How much grit do you think you’ve got?
Can you quit a thing that you like a lot?
You may talk of pluck; it’s an easy word,
And where’er you go it is often heard;
But can you tell to a jot or guess
Just how much courage you now possess?
You may stand to trouble and keep your grin,
But have you tackled self-discipline?
Have you ever issued commands to you
To quit the things that you like to do,
And then, when tempted and sorely swayed,
Those rigid orders have you obeyed?
Don’t boast of your grit till you’ve tried it out,
Nor prate to men of your courage stout,
For it’s easy enough to retain a grin
In the face of a fight there’s a chance to win,
But the sort of grit that is good to own
Is the stuff you need when you’re all alone.
How much grit do you think you’ve got?
Can you turn from joys that you like a lot?
Have you ever tested yourself to know
How far with yourself your will can go?
If you want to know if you have grit,
Just pick out a joy that you like, and quit.
It’s bully sport and it’s open fight;
It will keep you busy both day and night;
For the toughest kind of a game you’ll find
Is to make your body obey your mind.
And you never will know what is meant by grit
Unless there’s something you’ve tried to quit.
by Ogden Nash
A mighty creature is the germ,
Though smaller than the pachyderm.
His customary dwelling place
Is deep within the human race.
His childish pride he often pleases
By giving people strange diseases.
Do you, my poppet, feel infirm?
You probably contain a germ.
“Like children bathing on the shore
Buried a wave beneath,
The second wave succeeds before
We have had time to breathe.”
Sonnets To A Republican Friend
by Matthew Arnold
God knows it, I am with you. If to prize
Those virtues, priz’d and practis’d by too few,
But priz’d, but lov’d but eminent in you,
Man’s fundamental life: if to despise
The barren optimistic sophistries
of comfortable moles, whom what they do
Teach the limits of the just and true
And for so doing, have no need of eyes
If sadness of the long heart-wasting show
Wherein earth’s great ones are disquieted:
If thoughts, not idle, while before me flow
The armies of the homeless and unfed: –
If these are yours, if these are what you are
Then I am you, and what you feel, I share.
I can almost feel the anxiety creeping up through the internet the past couple of days from people reading this blog. I am torn between posting fluff and feel good poetry as a distraction to the disruption in our lives or share something with a bit more gristle attached to the bone. If I am wrestling with it, the answer is probably do both.
If there are good things to come out of COVID-19, it will be what each of us focuses on in response to these challenges of change. Here’s the good I see; friends and family rallying around their elders, dropping off food, connecting with them by phone and Facetime and Skype. I hear friends reconnecting with their neighbors, sharing food and childcare and reassuring each other, supporting each other. I hear both fear and boastfulness of good health, but across that wide span, I am watching people talking to each other. Maybe what will come out of social distancing is a sense of community. A realization of what we value, a longing for our neighbors and neighborhoods when we re-emerge. We can’t isolate ourselves completely from this global world we find ourselves. This is true for the person sitting on their couch binge watching Netflix and for nations. At some point we are going to have come out of social isolation and take the risks we have always taken. The risk that there are communicable diseases in our world.
Wendell Berry is a gifted writer and poet, who speaks to our personal well being in ourselves as a direct reflection of the well being of our communities:
“A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives. It is the knowledge that people have of each other, their concern for each other, their trust in each other, the freedom with which they come and go among themselves.”
I listened to the church service I had planned to attend Sunday morning at Westminster Presbyterian in Minneapolis by live stream. It was a first. It wasn’t nearly as spiritual or relevant. It wasn’t even a good substitute for being there. I won’t pretend. It was a thing unto itself that if I am going to get anything out of it, I will have to accept it for what it is, a video on a screen. I still enjoyed viewing it. What did it inspire me to do? Take a few of my business cards and slip them under my neighbors doors, who I have said hi to in the hall in the past but never really met as they all have moved in relatively recently and I am never home. I wrote on the back – “Howdy Neighbor, I am your neighbor in 208. If you need anything, give me a call.”
As this thing progresses and turns into weeks, months and potentially years, the question we are going to ask ourselves at some point is when do we shift from fear to living bravely? We can’t shut out our parents, our neighbors forever, we can’t close our schools forever, we can’t all work from home and actually survive and move forward. At some point we have to accept the risk of living. Otherwise, like the protagonist in Wendell Berry’s poem below, we shall cease to experience, cease to be even in, our own lives. For as Matthew Arnold says: “Then I am you, and what you feel, I share.”
Whatever happens. Whatever what is is is what
I want. Only that. But that.
Thomas Gent (1693 – 1778)
Fair flower! that fall’n beneath the angry blast,
Which marks with wither’d sweets its fearful way,
I grieve to see thee on the low earth cast,
While beauty’s trembling tints fade fast away.
But who is she, that from the mountain’s head
Comes gaily on, cheering the child of earth;
The walks of woe bloom bright beneath her tread,
And nature smiles with renovated mirth?
‘Tis Health! she comes, and hark! the vallies ring.
And hark! the echoing hills repeat the sound;
She sheds the new-blown blossoms of the spring,
And all their fragrance floats her footsteps round.
And hark! she whispers in the zephyr’s voice,
Lift up thy head, fair flower! rejoice! rejoice!
The zombie apocalypse has begun. At least it feels that way a bit with corona virus in the news 24/7. All my plans for the next 30 days seem to have been reformed, rewritten or scrapped all together as the week progressed. The picture changes by the day in terms of what does and doesn’t make sense in terms of travel, over reacting, under reacting – who knows? I am feeling second guessed (mostly by myself) for any decision I make regarding human contact. The politically correct thing to do right now is stay home for the next 14 days, avoid all human contact, but that seems a little extreme given that we likely have barely even kicked this pandemic off yet. We maybe only experiencing the pre-game ceremonies of the covid-19 games and just at the start of the first quarter. It’s going to be a long, long game. Hope you stocked up on toilet paper, nacho chips and salsa.
I enjoyed Stephen Fry’s tweet on Friday. Go team Fry! Even if we aren’t related, Stephen and I, I am always glad to see my namesakes being compassionate and intelligent. I agree, kindness and civility need to rule the day right now. It’s okay to be a rattled or even activated by all this crazy weirdness of COVID – 19. Reach out to friends and family and stay connected even if that means a little less face to face and a little more technology. Ask for reassurance. It is going to be okay, even though sadly, for some it probably won’t. That was true before COVID – 19 and will be true after it. However, faith in the benevolence of the universe is a better place to start this next global recession than grabby pessimism.
St. Francis and the Sow
by Galway Kinnell (1927 – 2014)
stands for all things,
even for those things that don’t flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;
as Saint Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch
blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow
began remembering all down her thick length,
from the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,
from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine
down through the great broken heart
to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath them:
It’s as if what is unbreakable—
the very pulse of life—waits for
everything else to be torn away,
and then in the bareness that
only silence and suffering and
great love can expose, it dares
to speak through us and to us.
It seems to say, if you want to last,
hold on to nothing. If you want
to know love, let in everything.
If you want to feel the presence
of everything, stop counting the
things that break along the way.
I Saw Sorrow
I saw Sorrow
holding a cup of pain.
I said, hey sorrow,
sorry to see you this way.
What’s troubling you?
What’s with the cup?
what else can I do?
All this Joy that you have brought to the world
has killed my business completely.