How Can A Body Withstand This?

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Karen Volkman

The Thing Is

by Ellen Bass

to love life, to love it even
when you have no stomach for it
and everything you’ve held dear
crumbles like burnt paper in your hands,
your throat filled with the silt of it.
When grief sits with you, its tropical heat
thickening the air, heavy as water
more fit for gills than lungs;
when grief weights you down like your own flesh
only more of it, an obesity of grief,
you think, How can a body withstand this?
Then you hold life like a face
between your palms, a plain face,
no charming smile, no violet eyes,
and you say, yes, I will take you
I will love you, again.

 

Sonnet [Laughing below, the unimagined room]

by Karen Volkman
 

Laughing below, the unimagined room
in unimagined mouths, a turning mood
speaking itself the way a fulling should
overspilling into something’s dome,

some moment’s edging over into bloom.
What is a happening but conscious cloud
seeking its edge in a wound or word
pellucidity describing term

as boundary, body, violated bourne
no sounding center, circumscription turn.
Mother of mirrors, angel of the acts,

do all the sighing breathing clicking wilds
summon the same blue breadth the sense subtracts,
the star suborning in its ruptured fields.


If You Don’t Answer, Someone Else Will

Louise Gluck
 
 

The advantage of poetry over life is that poetry, if it is sharp enough, may last.

Louis Gluck

October

Section I
 
by Louise Gluck
 

Is it winter again, is it cold again,
didn’t Frank just slip on the ice,
didn’t he heal, weren’t the spring seeds planted

didn’t the night end,
didn’t the melting ice
flood the narrow gutters

wasn’t my body
rescued, wasn’t it safe

didn’t the scar form, invisible
above the injury

terror and cold,
didn’t they just end, wasn’t the back garden
harrowed and planted—

I remember how the earth felt, red and dense,
in stiff rows, weren’t the seeds planted,
didn’t vines climb the south wall

I can’t hear your voice
for the wind’s cries, whistling over the bare ground

I no longer care
what sound it makes

when was I silenced, when did it first seem
pointless to describe that sound

what it sounds like can’t change what it is—

didn’t the night end, wasn’t the earth
safe when it was planted

didn’t we plant the seeds,
weren’t we necessary to the earth,

the vines, were they harvested


When Louise Glück won the 2020 Nobel prize a couple of weeks ago I went, who? It shows my amateur status in literary knowledge that I had never heard of her because they don’t hand out Nobel awards to hacks and rookies. Or do they? Does winning a major award cement your status as a Poet with a capitol P? Not in my opinion. There are no capitol P poets, only capitol P poems and lines of poems and fragments of lines of poems. Capital P’s don’t last very long, they are a sign of their times and tend to fade to lower case through the years.

My love of poetry has nothing to do with literary criticism or awards bestowed on authors, because as I look back on the Nobel award more than 60 years ago, the only people even up for consideration were white men. What is the legacy of awards and their significance when only a tiny minority of poets writing poetry were even considered not that long ago? If a Nobel prize means less 50 years ago, then is it more significant today because women and people of color are taken more seriously in the award’s process or even rise to the top to win?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but the good thing about the announcement is that it prodded me to google Ms. Gluck and read some of her poetry. Enjoyable, hearty, thought provoking fair, I will seek out more of her voice and pay attention when I see her name. Congratulations!


Midnight

by Louise Gluck

Speak to me, aching heart: what
Ridiculous errand are you inventing for yourself
Weeping in the dark garage
With your sack of garbage: it is not your job
To take out the garbage, it is your job
To empty the dishwasher. You are showing off
Again,
Exactly as you did in childhood–where
Is your sporting side, your famous
Ironic detachment? A little moonlight hits
The broken window, a little summer moonlight,
Tender
Murmurs from the earth with its ready
Sweetnesses–
Is this the way you communicate
With your husband, not answering
When he calls, or is this the way the heart
Behaves when it grieves: it wants to be
Alone with the garbage? If I were you,
I’d think ahead. After fifteen years,
His voice could be getting tired; some night
If you don’t answer, someone else will answer.

October Is The Treasurer Of The Year

Minnesota Late October 2020

And were an epitaph to be my story I’d have a short one ready for my own. I would have written of me on my stone: I had a lover’s quarrel with the world.

Robert Frost

October

By Robert Frost

O hushed October morning mild,
Thy leaves have ripened to the fall;
Tomorrow’s wind, if it be wild,
Should waste them all.
The crows above the forest call;
Tomorrow they may form and go.
O hushed October morning mild,
Begin the hours of this day slow.
Make the day seem to us less brief.
Hearts not averse to being beguiled,
Beguile us in the way you know.
Release one leaf at break of day;
At noon release another leaf;
One from our trees, one far away.
Retard the sun with gentle mist;
Enchant the land with amethyst.
Slow, slow!
For the grapes’ sake, if they were all,
Whose leaves already are burnt with frost,
Whose clustered fruit must else be lost—
For the grapes’ sake along the wall.


Today is likely one of the last mild days of fall, temperatures still in the mid 60’s but with a forecast of much colder air descending into Minnesota tomorrow and it then staying colder for the foreseeable 10 day forecast. There will still be likely one or two pleasant days ahead, but days you can leave the house without a jacket again are likely 5 months away.

There is something more precious in my appreciation of October warm days than there is of the first burst of spring. It feels like spring warmth comes in abundance, while the ever shortening days and longer colder nights of fall make me savor the last warm rays of sunshine. Poetry with fall themes tend be more serious than the poetry of spring, fall is a time for reflection not love sick jocularity.. Fall poetry tends to look backwards over the road just travelled, contemplative and reserved. What’s your favorite time of year? Do you have a favorite fall poem?


October

by Paul Lawrence Dunbar

October is the treasurer of the year,
And all the months pay bounty to her store;
The fields and orchards still their tribute bear,
And fill her brimming coffers more and more.
But she, with youthful lavishness,
Spends all her wealth in gaudy dress,
And decks herself in garments bold
Of scarlet, purple, red, and gold.
She heedeth not how swift the hours fly,
But smiles and sings her happy life along;
She only sees above a shining sky;
She only hears the breezes’ voice in song.
Her garments trail the woodlands through,
And gather pearls of early dew
That sparkle, till the roguish Sun
Creeps up and steals them every one.
But what cares she that jewels should be lost,
When all of Nature’s bounteous wealth is hers?
Though princely fortunes may have been their cost,
Not one regret her calm demeanor stirs.
Whole-hearted, happy, careless, free,
She lives her life out joyously,
Nor cares when Frost stalks o’er her way
And turns her auburn locks to gray.

My Thoughts Recover

October 2020 – Minnesota’s Fall Colors

Chanson d’automne

by Paul Verlaine

Les saglots longs
Des violons
De l’automne
Blessent mon coeur
D’une langueur
Monotone.

Tout suffocant
Et blême, quand
Sonne l’heure,
Je me souviens
Des jours anciens
Et je pleure;

Et je m’en vais
Au vent mauvais
Qui m’emporte
Deçà, delà,
Pareil à la
Feuille morte

Autumn Song

by Paul Verlaine
Translation by Arthur Symons, 1902. 

When a sighing begins
In the violins
Of the autumn-song,
My heart is drowned
In the slow sound
Languorous and long.

Pale as with pain,
Breath fails me when
The hours toll deep.
My thoughts recover,
The days that are over,
And I weep.

And I go 
Where the winds know,
Broken and brief,
To and fro
As the winds blow
A dead leaf.

 

Lassitude

by Paul Verlaine

With sweetness, with sweetness, with sweetness!
Calm this feverish rapture a little, my charmer.
Even at its height, you see, sometimes, a lover
Needs the quiet forgetfulness of a sister.

Be languid: make your caresses sleep-bringers,
Like your cradling gazes and your sighs.
Ah, the jealous embrace, the obsessive spasm,
Aren’t worth a deep kiss, even one that lies!

But you say to me, child: in your dear heart of gold
Wild desire goes sounding her cry.
Let her trumpet away, she’s far too bold!

Put your brow to my brow, your hand on my hand,
Make me those promises you’ll break by and by,
Let’s weep till the dawn, my little firebrand!


Cold Comforts Set Between Us

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The Cross of Snow

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

In the long, sleepless watches of the night,
A gentle face- the face of one long dead-
Looks at me from the wall, where round its head
The night-lamp casts a halo of pale light.
Here in this room she died; and soul more white
Never through martyrdom of fire was led
To its repose; nor can in books  be read
The legend of a life more benedight.
There is a mountain in the distant West
That, sun-defying, in its deep ravines
Displays a cross of snow on its side.
Such is the cross I wear upon my breast
These eighteen years, through all the changing scenes
And seasons, changeless since the day she died.


I can’t imagine the increased sorrows and difficulties that COVID has created for those mourning the deaths of loved ones, regardless of cause.  Celebrating life and mourning the death of friends and family is supposed to be an expression of family and community unity, not something we do remote.   We hug, we cry, we eat, we talk, we share, we sit silently together.   October is the anniversary of my Mother’s birthday and internment of her ashes.  This blog arouse out of me processing the one year anniversary of that event and using poetry as a salve for the hurt of mourning.

October is a month of harvest and senescence, living things withering, dying, decaying, recycling the contents of their living cells and nutrients back to the soil, in preparation for new life next spring. The vibrant colors of this year’s leaves in Minnesota are a reminder of the inherent beauty in the cycle of life all around us.  Even the end of the cycle of life.

When All The Others Were Away At Mass

by Seamus Heaney (1939 – 2013)

When all the others were away at Mass
I was all hers as we peeled potatoes.
They broke the silence, let fall one by one
Like solder weeping off the soldering iron:
Cold comforts set between us, things to share
Gleaming in a bucket of clean water.
And again let fall. Little pleasant splashes
From each other’s work would bring us to our senses.

So while the parish priest at her bedside
Went hammer and tongs at the prayers for the dying
And some were responding and some crying
I remembered her head bent towards my head,
Her breath in mine, our fluent dipping knives—
Never closer the whole rest of our lives.

My Leaves All Dissolved In Flight

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September 2

by Wendell Berry

In the evening there were flocks of nighthawks
passing southward over the valley.  The tall
sunflowers stood, burning on their stalks
to cold seed, by the still river.  And high
up the birds rose into sight against the darkening
clouds.  They tossed themselves among the fading
landscapes of the sky like rags, as in
abandonment to the summons their blood knew.
And in my mind, where had stood a garden
straining to the light, there grew
an acceptance of decline.  Having worked,
I would sleep, my leaves all dissolved in flight.


Wendell Berry has been a steady progressive voice for decades, sounding the alarm on environmental degradation and the need to conserve the natural world and agrarian soils and the economies and resources from which our sustenance depends.   His poetry and essays are personal, accessible and lead by example of searching his own soul, not the souls of others, while putting forth challenging and even difficult ideas and opinions.

I am attracted to poets who use the word “I” as the narrator of their poetry.   I know, from my own experience in writing, that using first person does not always mean its autobiographical or my story.   But, by doing so, it changes the dynamics between the writer and the reader such that I feel like the reader is peaking through the window of a house lit up at night, unsure if the person you are observing intended for themselves to be on display or whether the reader is now a voyeur, watching something that might at any moment, the next word, become deeply personal.  It heightens the tension, particularly in short poems.  It puts the reader on notice, that out of our own modesty, we may have to turn away briefly,  if suddenly the writer gets completely undressed before us, before returning our gaze.

If you read the poem above, there are three references to himself, one “I” and two “my”(s).  Think how different the poem would be if it was written in third person:

And in our minds, where had stood a garden
straining to the light, there grew
an acceptance of decline.  Having worked,
We would sleep, our leaves all dissolved in flight.

Now you have to ask yourself, with that small change, did Berry build consensus earlier in the poem? As a writer did he bring his reader’s in under his spell and we have given over to his vision?  We would be left pondering is this really our collective experience and perspective that the poet is sharing or is he being bossy?  By making it first person, the poet is sharing and caring for himself/herself and letting the reader decide what to make of it.

For me, it’s easy to fall into third person when writing because it is the nature of my inner voice speaking to my corporal self.   I find in my own writing that often after the first draft, even writing this blog, not just poetry, that I have to go back and reinsert the first person, make it my own narrative, singular, and let others find the slivers to which they can relate or be shocked by the incoherence of thought that is on the page.   It is an odd thing to send off words into the ether of the internet, only to see a faint trace of where they go, with very little perspective on what the receivers on the other end are thinking, other than a warm glow in my suspicion that we share something in common – a curiosity which is fed and fueled in part by poetry.


Grace

by Wendell Berry

The woods is shining this morning.
Red, gold and green, the leaves
lie on the ground, or fall,
or hang full of light in the air still.
Perfect in its rise and in its fall, it takes
the place it has been coming to forever.
It has not hastened here, or lagged.
See how surely it has sought itself,
its roots passing lordly through the earth.
See how without confusion it is
all that it is, and how flawless
its grace is. Running or walking, the way
is the same. Be still. Be still.
“He moves your bones, and the way is clear.”

A Man Told Me Once

Carl Sandburg (1878 – 1967)

Bad People

by Robert Bly (1926 –

A man told me once that all the bad people
Were needed. Maybe not all, but your fingernails
You need; they are really claws, and we know
Claws. The sharks—what about them?
They make other fish swim faster. The hard-faced men
In black coats who chase you for hours
In dreams—that’s the only way to get you
To the shore. Sometimes those hard women
Who abandon you get you to say, “You.”
A lazy part of us is like a tumbleweed.
It doesn’t move on its own. Sometimes it takes
A lot of Depression to get tumbleweeds moving.
Then they blow across three or four States.
This man told me that things work together.
Bad handwriting sometimes leads to new ideas;
And a careless god—who refuses to let people
Eat from the Tree of Knowledge—can lead
To books, and eventually to us. We write
Poems with lies in them, but they help a little.



Given the divide that has developed politically and culturally in this country, I have started to think differently. I have considered that maybe I need to focus less on believing that the chasm can be closed and more on recognizing the counterbalance opposing views provide, the positive that comes from different viewpoints in hopefully preventing either side from tipping over backwards. People are not magnets, opposites do not attract. We tend to be attracted to those with similar experiences and ideas, yet if there is not mutual respect and acceptance for our inherent human diversity we can not succeed as a multi-cultural society.

I wonder, do each of us have a ready list of bad people in our minds? Can we equally construct a list of good people just as easily? What about all the people in the middle, the majority we lump into neither bad or good? And if I was on one of your lists, what would it take for me to go from one list to the other or fall out of sight into the pleasantly benign as neither?

I pose those questions because it feels like our political machines and attack ads are constantly putting candidates into one list or the other, depending on who is paying for the ad. The sheer volume of the ads is overwhelming. Is it time to stop seeing the other side of the political spectrum as bad and ours as good and start seeing them as our neighbors who prevent us from getting too carried away with ourselves and tipping over? Gerrymandering voting districts to artificially create majorities on either side do not provide the agile change that we need in these turbulent times. Democracy wasn’t supposed to go to the cleverest most manipulative side, the side that prevails in courts based on obtuse interpretations of legal points, it was supposed to be an opportunity for majority rule and for that majority to change quickly as needed to respond to issues most relevant to the electorate at the moment.

I fear we have gotten hoodwinked by expert marketing. scientific polling meant to influence outcomes, political strategists, political scientists and pundits with their own hidden agendas focused more on money and less on what is the best possible outcome for our communities and for our future. And in the end, as I turn off the TV unable to withstand another political ad, I welcome the opportunity to spend a little time in Carl Sandburg’s world of poetry, where beautiful unanswerable questions await.


Under the Harvest Moon

by Carl Sandburg

Under the harvest moon,
When the soft silver
Drips shimmering
Over the garden nights,
Death, the gray mocker,
Comes and whispers to you
As a beautiful friend
Who remembers.

Under the summer roses
When the flagrant crimson
Lurks in the dusk
Of the wild red leaves,
Love, with little hands,
Comes and touches you
With a thousand memories,
And asks you
Beautiful, unanswerable questions.

Knowledge Crouches In Its Den

George_Meredith_by_George_Frederic_Watts

Modern Love VII

by George Meredith

She issues radiant from her dressing-room,
Like one prepared to scale an upper sphere:
—By stirring up a lower, much I fear!
How deftly that oiled barber lays his bloom!
That long-shanked dapper Cupid with frisked curls
Can make known woman torturingly fair;
The gold-eyed serpent dwelling in rich hair,
Awakes beneath his magic whisks and twirls.
His art can take the eyes from out my head,
Until I see with eyes of other men;
While deeper knowledge crouches in its den,
And sends a spark up:—is it true we’re wed?
Yea! filthiness of body is most vile,
But faithlessness of heart I do hold worse.
The former, it were not so great a curse
To read on the steel-mirror of her smile.


George Meredith, like his contemporary Thomas Hardy, subsidized his poetry through success as a novelist. His most acclaimed novel, The Egoist, is both comedic and personal, a story of a man jilted by his first bride-to-be that illustrates the constrained and convoluted relationships between men and women in Victorian society. Although it was his novels that paid the bills during his lifetime, it is more his poetry that has kept him in front of readers today.

Modern Love consists of 50 separate poems, all are 16 lines with similar construction. Lines are typically 10 to 12 syllables in length and are sonnet like in their feel, as well as sonnet like in their content. Meredith uses the form to process the end of his first marriage and the sadness and disruption the crisis created. Each poem is a separate little drama. As a whole they are a bit chauvinistic but its hard to take the man out of his time. At the core of comedic conflict in The Egoist is the inequality between men and women in the Victorian era. However, scratching a little deeper, for me there is a sense of forgiveness in the entire endeavor, a forgiveness for himself and his wife and lover that rescues it into something honest and enduring.

Maybe I am attracted to these poems simply on the basis of their title – Modern Love. It creates the question in my mind as I read them – what is modern love? How different are we really from the 1850’s? Does how we relate to our partners change with time and the norms of society or is it more time-less in nature – the relationship between lovers? Every generation has to discover and in their way rediscover sex and then define the rules by which relationships and intimacy are to be lived. Meredith’s choice of words may feel a bit outdated, but the emotions on which they are based are modern – modern love.


Modern Love: XVI

by George Meredith

In our old shipwrecked days there was an hour,
When in the firelight steadily aglow,
Joined slackly, we beheld the red chasm grow
Among the clicking coals. Our library-bower
That eve was left to us: and hushed we sat
As lovers to whom Time is whispering.
From sudden-opened doors we heard them sing:
The nodding elders mixed good wine with chat.
Well knew we that Life’s greatest treasure lay
With us, and of it was our talk. “Ah, yes!
Love dies!” I said: I never thought it less.
She yearned to me that sentence to unsay.
Then when the fire domed blackening, I found
Her cheek was salt against my kiss, and swift
Up the sharp scale of sobs her breast did lift:—
Now am I haunted by that taste! that sound!

I’m Grateful We’ve Got Each Other

 

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If my heart could do my thinking And my head begin to feel would I look upon the world anew, And know what’s truly real.

Van Morrison

Corpus

by T. A. Fry

Brain speaking;

“Dear friends, if in the hour of my gleaning,
while in pain, I should forget. let me praise
muscle, bone and gristle, who gave meaning
to ‘faithful vessel’ in moving me always.
I’ve come to ken the fullness of delays
in the blub, dub of heart’s beat.  Finding joy
in spine’s bearing, I wanted to relay
my love of skin that covers our favorite toy.
I defend my reckless caring as a feeble ploy
to test our limits through a hoary pest.
That measured steadfast mettle to alloy
acts of arrogance with a modest rest.”

Heart said to guts:  “Don’t let this go to head.
But, I’m grateful we have each other
         And not another brain instead.”


This past few months, with the specter of COVID hanging over us, it is hard to not fall into a bit of melancholy thinking about what will happen if and when you contract the disease. Based on what I think I know about this specific corona virus it is likely that true immunity from a vaccine is unlikely, at least the first treatments available are likely to act more like the current flu vaccines which can strengthen my immune system and help diminish the effects of getting the flu that year, but not eliminate my chance of getting it. And like the flu vaccine it will require yearly additional vaccinations after a preliminary round of two to four boosters to continue to impart any kind of enhanced immune response.

As I contemplate what that means for my long term prospects of living into my 80’s its hard to not ignore that being diabetic puts me at much higher risk of complications if not in the near term but in 13 short years from now when I am in the official high risk age group of over 70 somethings. What I find a bit humorous is that I am relatively unconcerned about these potentially dire outcomes. I am either in denial about this new revised actuarial tables for my morbidity or I feel too damned lucky over the past 57 years to bear a grudge against my body now. I have been extremely fortunate to have gotten a very reliable model in terms of my physical corpus. Yes, a little rust is forming on the chassis and some minor knocking and pinging in the engine but it still is a daily driver with few aches and pains.

My only real experience with discomfort is the three separate episodes of kidney stones (the hoary pest in the poem above) spaced out over 20 years and those were short lived experiences over and done in less than 24 hours. Hardly worth mentioning really. However after my most recent kidney stone, that certainly got my attention for a day, I wrote the above sonnet as a thank you to my body, or I should say the sonnet wrote itself. It was one of those poems, that I came up with the first line and from there it flowed.

Andrew Marvel’s inner dialogue has far more spiritual intention than the playful nature of my sonnet. Do you have a poem that you wrote or someone else that fits your head’s feeling about your body?


A Dialogue Between The Soul and The Body

by Andrew Marvel

SOUL
O who shall, from this dungeon, raise
A soul enslav’d so many ways?
With bolts of bones, that fetter’d stands
In feet, and manacled in hands;
Here blinded with an eye, and there
Deaf with the drumming of an ear;
A soul hung up, as ’twere, in chains
Of nerves, and arteries, and veins;
Tortur’d, besides each other part,
In a vain head, and double heart.

BODY
O who shall me deliver whole
From bonds of this tyrannic soul?
Which, stretch’d upright, impales me so
That mine own precipice I go;
And warms and moves this needless frame,
(A fever could but do the same)
And, wanting where its spite to try,
Has made me live to let me die.
A body that could never rest,
Since this ill spirit it possest.

SOUL
What magic could me thus confine
Within another’s grief to pine?
Where whatsoever it complain,
I feel, that cannot feel, the pain;
And all my care itself employs;
That to preserve which me destroys;
Constrain’d not only to endure
Diseases, but, what’s worse, the cure;
And ready oft the port to gain,
Am shipwreck’d into health again.

BODY
But physic yet could never reach
The maladies thou me dost teach;
Whom first the cramp of hope does tear,
And then the palsy shakes of fear;
The pestilence of love does heat,
Or hatred’s hidden ulcer eat;
Joy’s cheerful madness does perplex,
Or sorrow’s other madness vex;
Which knowledge forces me to know,
And memory will not forego.
What but a soul could have the wit
To build me up for sin so fit?
So architects do square and hew
Green trees that in the forest grew.