My notion of art is very maximalist and souped up; I love spectacle, overload, magic materials, magic words, incantation and litany, incarnation and possession, spilling and wounds. Art as a sacred event.
Your Cool Whip
by Joyelle McSweeney
Inside the plump tub, we find the whiteness
Wears a peculiar swirl. You guess a motherly pump
Nuzzled the young surface, left this umbilical mark
Of the factory, that vague, prenatal hum
And glide, the kissing valves and shutes
Pouring little vessels full. Our talk does not
Long linger there, in those maternal corridors;
In desire there is only the present. Our prurient fingers,
Divoting the swell, are surprised not to sink
Infinitely deep. They butt against the plastic tub;
The sheer stiff molds around them, takes their heat:
Stasis the death of what is less than love.
We do what’s left to do. We eat.
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.