Everybody Sees That I Am Old But You

Charlotte Mew by Dorothy Webster Hawksley. Watercolour 1926.

A Quoi Bon Dire?

by Charlotte Mew (1869 – 1928)

Seventeen years ago you said
Something that sounded like Good-bye;
And everybody thinks that you are dead,
But I.

So I, as I grow stiff and cold
To this and that say Good-bye too;
And everybody sees that I am old
But you.

And one fine morning in a sunny lane
Some boy and girl will meet and kiss and swear
That nobody can love their way again
While over there
You will have smiled, I shall have tossed your hair.


The current debate over safety of vaccines feels like lunacy when you read the biography of Charlotte Mew.  We have forgotten the devastation of common diseases on families prior to vaccines being developed.  Vaccines for common childhood illnesses would have been a life changer and a miracle for her family. Born into a middle class family in London in 1869, Charlotte was the second to last of seven children.  Childhood illnesses killed three older brothers and her mother in quick succession before Charlotte was ten and two older siblings were so debilitated physically and mentally that as teenagers they were committed to psychiatric institutions where they would spend the rest of their short lives.  Following their father’s death in 1898 Charlotte and her only remaining sibling, her younger sister Anne fell into poverty.  Mew’s writing, although having succeeded to reach a fairly good audience, earning her praise from the literary community in London, did not generate enough income to support her and her sister.  Only a small government pension prevented the two of them from being homeless despite having to take on boarders and eventually sell the family home.  The two sister’s scraped by until Anne was diagnosed with cancer.   Charlotte nursed her until her death in 1924.    Neither sister ever married or wanted children, given their experiences of loss and grief.   

Mew’s poetry is an expression of the trauma Mew experienced —death, mental illness, loneliness, poverty and disillusionment— these became her primary themes.   An unconventional short story writer as well as poet, she confronted issues that were controversial and provocative for her time, including prostitution, sexism, lack of women’s rights.  Yet, despite it all, there is a spark of hope that runs around the edges of her poetry.  Both of the poems I shared today are touching in their clever use of rhyme and meter.  Each of these brought a smile to my face and I hope yours.  


The Trees Are Down  (Excerpt)

 
by Charlotte Mew
 
It is not for a moment the Spring is unmade to-day;
These were great trees, it was in them from root to stem:
When the men with the ‘Whoops’ and the ‘Whoas’ have carted the whole of the whispering loveliness away
Half the Spring, for me, will have gone with them.
 
It is going now, and my heart has been struck with the hearts of the planes;
Half my life it has beat with these, in the sun, in the rains,   
             In the March wind, the May breeze,
In the great gales that came over to them across the roofs from the great seas.
             There was only a quiet rain when they were dying;
             They must have heard the sparrows flying,   
And the small creeping creatures in the earth where they were lying—
             But I, all day, I heard an angel crying:
             ‘Hurt not the trees.’

 

 

As Yes Is To If

Christina Rossetti (1830 – 1894)

Nothing recedes like progress.

e. e. cummings

nothing false and possible is love

by e. e. cummings
 
nothing false and possible is love
(who’s imagined,therefore is limitless)
love’s to giving as to keeping’s give;
as yes is to if,love is to yes

 

must’s a schoolroom in the month of may:
life’s the deathboard where all now turns when
(love’s a universe beyond obey
or command,reality or un-)

proudly depths above why’s first because
(faith’s last doubt and humbly heights below)
kneeling,we-true lovers-pray that us
will ourselves continue to outgrow

all whose mosts if you have known and i’ve
only we our least begin to guess


Come Back To Me

Christina Rossetti (1830 – 1894)

Come back to me, who wait and watch for you –
Or come not yet, for it is over then,
And long it is before you come again,
So far between my pleasures are and few.
While, when you come not, what I do I do
Thinking “Now when he comes,” my sweetest when:
For one man is my world of all the men
This wide world holds; O love, my world is you.
Howbeit, to meet you grows almost a pang
Because the pang of parting comes so soon;
My hope hangs waning, waxing, like a moon
Between the heavenly days on which we meet:
Ah me, but where are now the songs I sang
When life was sweet because you call’d them sweet?

I Am. I Want To Be.

Past the near meadows, over the still stream,
                Up the hill-side; and now ’tis buried deep
                        In the next valley-glades:
         Was it a vision, or a waking dream?
                Fled is that music:—Do I wake or sleep?
 
John Keats

Music Box

by Jorge Luis Borges
Translated by Tony Barnstone

Music of Japan. Parsimoniously
from the water clock the drops unfold
in lazy honey or ethereal gold
that over time reiterates a weave
eternal, fragile, enigmatic, bright.
I fear that every one will be the last.
They are a yesterday come from the past.
But from what shrine, from what mountain’s slight
garden, what vigils by an unknown sea,
and from what modest melancholy, from
what lost and rediscovered afternoon
do they arrive at their far future: me?
Who knows? No matter. When I hear it play
I am. I want to be. I bleed away.

 

Secret Sonnets – An Incredible Poetry Initiative in Miami in 2015

Secrets

by Lola Ridge  (1873-1941)

Secrets
infesting my half-sleep…
did you enter my wound from another wound
brushing mine in a crowd…
or did I snare you on my sharper edges
as a bird flying through cobwebbed trees at sun-up
carries off spiders on its wings?
 
Secrets,
running over my soul without sound,
only when dawn comes tip-toeing
ushered by a suave wind,
and dreams disintegrate
like breath shapes in frosty air,
I shall overhear you, bare-foot,
scatting off into the darkness….
I shall know you, secrets
by the litter you have left
and by your bloody foot-prints.

There Is Perfect Peace

Thom Gunn (1929 – 2004)

Happiness is impossible, and even inconceivable, to a mind without scope and without pause, a mind driven by craving, pleasure, or fear. To be happy, you must be reasonable, or you must be tamed. You must have taken the measure of your powers, tasted the fruits of your passion, and learned your place in the world and what things in it can really serve you. To be happy, you must be wise.

George Santayana

Mont Brevent

by George Santayana (1863 – 1952)

O dweller in the valley, lift thine eyes
To where, above the drift of cloud, the stone
Endures in silence, and to God alone
Upturns its furrowed visage, and is wise.
There yet is being, far from all that dies,
And beauty where no mortal maketh moan,
Where larger planets swim the liquid zone,
And wider spaces stretch to calmer skies.
Only a little way above the plain
Is snow eternal. Round the mountain’s knees
Hovers the fury of the wind and rain.
Look up, and teach thy noble heart to cease
From endless labour. There is perfect peace
Only a little way above thy pain.


We are at day 23 this summer of days over 90 degrees by end of July, which for central Minnesota is trending towards shattering the record for a season.  My partner and I have found our new swimming lake and are trying to get a swim in each night as the sun is going down to relax and cool off, before heading back to a farm house without air conditioning.   Although we may someday install air conditioning, there is something about the lack of it that brings us both back to our childhoods, where keeping windows closed during the day and opening them at night with a small fan circulating the evenings cool air, that feels energy efficient and familiar at the same time.   Yes, there is a bit more sweat on the sheets some nights and a bit of tossing and turning, but as a Minnesotan that also needs to prepare for -10 to -20 F some night this winter, I see it as my bodies need to store some of that latent heat deep in my bones so that I can call upon it when faced with sub zero temperatures. 

I don’t know if I can explain the joy of swimming in clean, clear fresh water, its softness, its crystal embrace.  There is no other feeling like when you dive head first into clear water in a lake just cold enough to refresh and yet warm enough to be comfortable.  Swimming in fresh water is so different than swimming in the ocean.  It smells different, tastes different, feels different.  Our new favorite swimming lake has a great city park that is not too crowded, and yet part of the fun is there are others there sharing the lake with us.  Most nights we get there about 8:00 pm, and there are several groups of families speaking multiple languages, taking their kids down for a dip in the evening before bed.   The scene in the evening are toddlers all the way up through teenagers frolicking in the shallows of the sandy beach up to their waist, throwing balls or wrestling, each age group with its own rituals of rough housing and play, while older kids and adults take out paddle boards and kayaks or swim, like we do each night, out into the middle of the lake and back.  Our goal is to swim as many nights as possible the next 2 weeks, each night going a little farther and farther out into the lake, until one night we will swim all the way across it.  It’s not a small lake and more than once as we return we get comments from fellow beach goers about how far out we swim each night.  We swim close to each other, but not on top of each other, keeping an eye out for the other, but letting each take their own pace, letting the silence of the water cleanse our minds and bodies.  There is a family of loons, one juvenile and its parents, that are frequent companions on these swims, diving for fish and swimming close enough we can observe their behavior, their calls of joy punctuating the silence now and again, a sound that connects us to past summer’s swims on lakes far more remote than this one that takes us back in time and connects it to the present.   If you haven’t swam recently in a clear, cool lake, particularly one with a loon calling as you swim, seek it out, and get out and dive in sometime in August.  Find water worthy of protecting the unique experience, find your own swimming perfection.

From the Wave

By Thom Gunn

It mounts at sea, a concave wall
     Down-ribbed with shine,
And pushes forward, building tall
     Its steep incline.

Then from their hiding rise to sight
     Black shapes on boards
Bearing before the fringe of white
     It mottles towards.

Their pale feet curl, they poise their weight
     With a learn’d skill.
It is the wave they imitate
     Keeps them so still.

The marbling bodies have become
     Half wave, half men,
Grafted it seems by feet of foam
     Some seconds, then,

Late as they can, they slice the face
     In timed procession:
Balance is triumph in this place,
     Triumph possession.

The mindless heave of which they rode
     A fluid shelf
Breaks as they leave it, falls and, slowed,
     Loses itself.

Clear, the sheathed bodies slick as seals
     Loosen and tingle;
And by the board the bare foot feels
     The suck of shingle.

They paddle in the shallows still;
     Two splash each other;
Then all swim out to wait until
     The right waves gather.

Plashless As They Swim

A July Butterfly on Our Walkway

A power of Butterfly must be –
The Aptitude to fly
Meadows of Majesty concedes
And easy Sweeps of Sky –

Emily Dickinson

A Bird Came Down The Walk

by Emily Dickinson

A Bird came down the Walk—
He did not know I saw—
He bit an angle-worm in halves
And ate the fellow, raw,

And then he drank a Dew
From a convenient Grass,
And then hopped sidewise to the Wall
To let a Beetle pass—

He glanced with rapid eyes
That hurried all abroad—
They looked like frightened Beads, I thought—
He stirred his velvet head

Like one in danger, Cautious,
I offered him a Crumb,
And he unrolled his feathers
And rowed him softer home—

Than Oars divide the Ocean,
Too silver for a seam—
Or Butterflies, off Banks of Noon,
Leap, plashless as they swim


I have struggled lately to listen to the news on NPR (National Public Radio) on my daily commute.  It feels like a drum beat of negativity on COVID, environmental degradation, global warming, growing political ineffectiveness.  I find myself disconnecting from the chaos of the outside world and drawing back inwards and outwards towards nature.  It makes me appreciate the pheasant feather I found in the driveway,  the butterflies resting in the sun along our sidewalk, the red deer standing in the hay field, the sand hill crane calling from the wet land, the lilies blooming in the garden, the little birds flitting about in the garden.  The crazier the world becomes the more solace I find in the tiny slice of nature I am able to experience on a daily basis.  The problem with science and technology is the endless improvement in efficiency of natural resource extraction.   We are becoming so highly specialized in every field of mining and drilling we are getting too good at draining the natural world of its resources. 

I spent last Saturday with my father and we visited the house and town he grew up in from age 3 to 5th grade.  The house is still there, as are most of his neighbor’s homes from that period, but the connection to the simplicity of his life that prepared him for the modern world is gone.   He described his childhood as idyllic, a small town in Iowa in the 1930’s, surrounded by farms, forests and meadows.  He described learning to swim in the nearby creeks in the summer and sledding on the local hills on home made sleds made from crate lumber from the town’s feed mill.  He grew up in the depression, when everyone was on a level playing field economically, trying to scrape by with big gardens, chickens, and resourcefulness to make your own things and make your own fun.   I took a picture of him out front of the house on Saturday in what was then Ontario, Iowa, now lost inside the city limits of Ames.  We later that day were given a picture of him around 4th grade outside the same house, in a hand me down overcoat, far too big for him that he had yet to grow into, but had fond memories of being worn by all the boys in his family that had preceded him. Maybe its inevitable that modernity slowly devours the past.  But I am grateful the one room school house my father attended from Kindergarten through 5th grade still stands, even if it has been re-purposed as a  single family home. 

The inventiveness of Dickinson’s poetry continues to surprise and delight me as I become more familiar with her work.   Her ability to invent language is remarkable.  I had to look up several versions of the poem above to confirm that plashless was indeed accurate in its spelling of what she intended.   Splashing is something different than plashing and the absence of plash with a butterfly on a pool of water is the kind of unique observation of the natural world that makes the poem live in imagery far beyond the words.    As I mentioned early in the month, Frost seems to be on my mind right now in ways I can’t explain.  I find his poem below remarkable in its ability to convey an aroma that only a person with an apple tree in their yard or farm can understand.   The smell of slightly fermenting rotting apples upon the ground that bequeath one final act of benevolence in their gift as an apple, an aroma of the potential that was once their bounty. 


Unharvested

by Robert Frost

A scent of ripeness from over a wall.
And come to leave the routine road
And look for what had made me stall,
There sure enough was an apple tree
That had eased itself of its summer load,
And of all but its trivial foliage free,
Now breathed as light as a lady’s fan.
For there had been an apple fall
As complete as the apple had given man.
The ground was one circle of solid red.

May something go always unharvested!
May much stay out of our stated plan,
Apples or something forgotten and left,
So smelling their sweetness would be no theft.

Grant Me Love

Licia Sonnets 27 

by Giles Fletcher Sr.

The crystal stream wherein my love did swim,
Melted in tears as partners of my woe;
Her shine was such as did the fountain dim,
The pearl-like fountain whiter than the snow;
Then like perfume, resolvéd with a heat,
The fountain smoked, as if it thought to burn;
A wonder strange to see the cold so great,
And yet the fountain into smoke to turn.
I searched the cause, and found it to be this:
She touched the water, and it burned with love.
Now by her means it purebased hath that bliss,
Which all diseases quickly can remove.
Then if by you these streams thus blesse’d be,
Sweet, grant me love, and be not worse to me.


Wooing (Excerpt)

by Giles Fletcher Jr.

LOVE is the blossom where there blows
Every thing that lives or grows:
Love doth make the Heav’ns to move,
And the Sun doth burn in love:
Love the strong and weak doth yoke,
And makes the ivy climb the oak,
Under whose shadows lions wild,
Soften’d by love, grow tame and mild:
Love no med’cine can appease,
He burns the fishes in the seas:
Not all the skill his wounds can stench,
Not all the sea his fire can quench.
Love did make the bloody spear
Once a leavy coat to wear,
While in his leaves there shrouded lay
Sweet birds, for love that sing and play
And of all love’s joyful flame
I the bud and blossom am.
. Only bend thy knee to me,
. Thy wooing shall thy winning be!

Joy Rises Laughing

Rudy Burckardt (left) and Edwin Denby (Right)

There is a bit of insanity in dancing that does everybody a great deal of good.

Edwin Denby

Ravenna

by Edwin Denby (1903 – 1983)

A governing and rouged nun, she lifts the cubed
Jewels, garlanded heavy on hair, shoulders
Breasts, on hands and feet, the drak-blue the cell-roomed
Splendor’s fountain lifts sunken to Him Who holds her;
But the emperor is running to his pet hens
Cackling like a hermit, and his foolish smile
Alone on the vacancy of noon-glazed fens
Haunts a blossoming water-capital’s guile;
Holy placidity of lilylike throats
Ravenna of fleets, silent above the cows
A turnip plain and stagnant houses floats
Exultance of sailor hymns, virginal vows;
In a church’s tiered and April-green alcoves
Joy rises laughing at ease to love God’s loves

 


Edwin Denby was born in Tientsin, China in 1903. He spent his childhood first in Shanghai, then in Vienna, where his father served as consul general from 1909-1915, before coming to the United States in 1916. He attended Harvard and University of Vienna without completing a degree.  He found his life long partner Rudy Burckhardt in Switerland in 1934 while looking for someone to take his passport photo. 

Denby is an artist’s artist.   He is one of those names whom you have never heard of but seemed to rub shoulders with the artistic elite in New York and Europe.  Long time friends with Willem de Kooning, Orson Welles, John Houseman, Paul Bowles, Eugene Labiche and Aaron Copland just to name a few.   He is best remembered as a ballet critic in New York and Europe and for adapting several scripts for theater and movies. 

As a fellow lover of ballet, I had come across his name in his main area of work back as a writer about ballet in the 1980’s when I had season tickets to Northrop Ballet Series and the best in the ballet world would come to  town including Baryshnikov with American Ballet Theater more than once.  So, I was pleasantly surprised to discover he wrote poetry and excellent poetry at that as well.  Denby published multiple books of poetry over a 25 year period. 

I am particularly taken with Song.   It is obviously inspired by his experience with his partner Burkhardt.   It is a simple poem, but expresses the gift of true love as good as any.   Its rhyme makes the serious a little less serious, the playfulness of love, more playful, the force of love, more forceful.   Its meter sneaks up on you and  is more sophisticated in its construction than on first glance when read the second time through.  It is the kind of poem if it was written for you it might be better than a wedding ring.   It is the kind of poem that everyone should write for their true love.  And, if you aren’t up to that task, read them this one over breakfast tomorrow and clink your coffee cups in honor of Rudy and Edwin. 


Song

by Edwin Denby

I don’t know any more what it used to be
Before I saw you at table sitting across from me
All I can remember is I saw you look at me
And I couldn’t breathe and I hurt so bad I couldn’t see.

I couldn’t see but just your looking eyes
And my ears was buzzing with a thumping noise
And I was scared the way everything went rushing around
Like I was all alone, like I was going to drown.

There wasn’t nothing left except the light of your face,
There might have been no people, there might have been no place,
Like as if a dream were to be stronger than thought
And could walk into the sun and be stronger than aught.

Then someone says something and then you spoke
And I couldn’t hardly answer up, but it sounded like a croak
So I just sat still and nobody knew
That since that happened all of everything is you.

We Do Not Surrender

Tomas Transtromer (1931 – 2015)

“It’s all right if you grow your wings on the way down.”

Robert Bly

Allegro

by Tomas Transtromer
Translated by Robert Bly

After a black day, I play Haydn,
and feel a little warmth in my hands.

The keys are ready. Kind hammers fall.
The sound is spirited, green, and full of silence.

The sound says that freedom exists
and someone pays no tax to Caesar.

I shove my hands in my haydnpockets
and act like a man who is calm about it all.

I raise my haydnflag. The signal is:
“We do not surrender. But want peace.”


Anlatamiyorum (I Can’t Explain)

by Orhan Veli Kanik

If I cried, could you hear
My voice in my poems,
Could you touch my tears
With your hands?
Before I fell prey to this grief,
I never knew songs were so enchanting
And words so mild.
I know there’s a place
Where you can talk about everything;
I feel I’m close to that place,
Yet I can’t explain.

I Saw A Wilderness of Stars

Louis L’Amour – The High Graders

“All loose things seem to drift down to the sea, and so did I.

Louis L’Amour

 

Library Lovers

by Austin MacRae

She devours Steel, and he L’Amour.
She leads him to the fiction, where they part
for different shelves. He’s eager to explore
the tough ol’ west, and she the tough ol’ heart.
They meet me at the desk with separate piles.
Unthinkingly, I mix the books together.
I sense his wave of nervousness. She smiles
and quickly sorts the titles out. ‘Nice weather
today,’ she says. He slides his pile away,
averts his eyes, and waits for her to pull
out bags. ‘Let’s eat at Lou’s,’ I hear her say.
She grabs his arm and leads him, tote bag full
of cowboy stories swinging at his heel,
his sidearm holstered by her whim of steel.


Louis L’Amour wrote fiction but his life was purely genuine.  Born in Jamestown North Dakota as Louis LaMoore in 1908, he moved with his father in 1923 after family finances suffered from a series of bank failures and hard times in the farming business in North Dakota.  They moved west and for the next 20 years, L’Amour lived the life that would infuse his stories as a writer.  Ranch hand, professional boxer, dock worker, itinerant laborer and merchant seaman, he traveled the west and the world before serving in WWII in the Army. 

L’Amour always had an interest in writing and had some success placing articles on boxing along with short stories about a sea captain during the 1930’s and 1940’s.  It was during this time he published poetry including a number of sonnets. It wasn’t until the early 1950’s that L’Amour’s big break as a writer occurred when a short story of his was published in Collier’s with a western theme.  John Wayne and the producer Robert Fellows read it and Fellows offered L’Amour $4,000 for the rights to the screen play.  L’Amour wisely kept the rights to the novel, rewrote the short story as a full length novel that mostly followed the plot of the movie, changed the title of the novel to Hondo, same as the movie, with a quote on the cover from John Wayne saying; “this is the finest Western I have ever read.”  L’Amour’s success was cemented from there.  L’Amour wrote pulp fiction in a style that was popular and was prolific in his output. Many of his books might not pass the sniff test for political correctness of today, but as a writer, he was unflagging in his focus on entertaining with the novels he created.   I have probably read 10 to 15 Louis L’Amour books over the years, although none in the last 35 years. Although none of them are on my book shelves today, I look back and enjoy them all the more, knowing he also was a writer of sonnets.  


An Ember In The Dark

by Louis L’Amour

Faintly, along the shadowed shores of night
I saw a wilderness of stars that flamed
And fluttered as they climbed or sank, and shamed
The crouching dark with shyly twinkling light;
I saw them there, odd fragments quaintly bright,
And wondered at their presence there unclaimed,
Then thought, perhaps, that they were dreams unnamed,
That faded slow, like hope’s arrested flight.

Or vanished suddenly, like futile fears-
And some were old and worn like precious things
That youth preserves against encroaching years-
Some disappeared like songs that no man sings,
But one remained- an ember in the dark-
I crouched alone, and blew upon the spark.