God Forbid I Look Behind

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The Only Ghost I Ever Saw

by Emily Dickinson

The only ghost I ever saw
Was dressed in mechlin, –so;
He wore no sandal on his foot,
And stepped like flakes of snow.
His gait was soundless, like the bird,
But rapid, like the roe;
His fashions quaint, mosaic,
Or, haply, mistletoe.

Hi conversation seldom,
His laughter like the breeze
That dies away in dimples
Among the pensive trees.
Our interview was transient, —
Of me, himself was shy;
And God forbid I look behind
Since that appalling day!

 


I attended a performance of Amal and the Night Visitors this weekend with James Sewell Ballet in Minneapolis.   A simple tale, an operetta set to motion as a ballet, that reminds us that our lives change for the better when we open the door to the stranger and welcome them inside.  I agree with Delmore Schwartz.  Let Angels be the judge of dogs and children.  Some people believe babies are born with all the knowledge of the world, childhood is unlearning what they already know. Dogs are born with similar knowledge.  They are born trusting.  And in companionship they learn to magnify that trust or it diminishes, depending on the person in their charge.  To howl and dance out our souls sounds like a good plan for dogs, children and adults.

 


Dogs Are Shakespearean, Children are Strangers

by Delmore Schwartz

Dogs are Shakespearean, children are strangers.
Let Freud and Wordsworth discuss the child,
Angels and Platonists shall judge the dog,
The running dog, who paused, distending nostrils,
Then barked and wailed; the boy who pinched his sister,
The little girl who sang the song from Twelfth Night,
As if she understood the wind and rain,
The dog who moaned, hearing the violins in concert.
—O I am sad when I see dogs or children!
For they are strangers, they are Shakespearean.

Tell us, Freud, can it be that lovely children
Have merely ugly dreams of natural functions?
And you, too, Wordsworth, are children truly
Clouded with glory, learned in dark Nature?
The dog in humble inquiry along the ground,
The child who credits dreams and fears the dark,
Know more and less than you: they know full well
Nor dream nor childhood answer questions well:
You too are strangers, children are Shakespearean.

Regard the child, regard the animal,
Welcome strangers, but study daily things,
Knowing that heaven and hell surround us,
But this, this which we say before we’re sorry,
This which we live behind our unseen faces,
Is neither dream, nor childhood, neither
Myth, nor landscape, final, nor finished,
For we are incomplete and know no future,
And we are howling or dancing out our souls
In beating syllables before the curtain:
We are Shakespearean, we are strangers.

This Is The Meaning of Life

Delmore Schwartz
Delmore Schwartz in New York City

The Beautiful American Word, Sure

by Delmore Schwartz (1913 – 1966)

The beautiful American word, Sure
As I have come into a room, and touch
The lamp’s button, and the light blooms with such
Certainty where the darkness loomed before,

As I care for what I do not know, and care
Knowing for little she might not have been,
And for how little she would be unseen,
The intercourse of lives miraculous and dear.

Where the light is, and each thing clear,
Separate from all others, standing in its place,
I drink the time and touch whatever’s near,

And hope for day when the whole world has that face:
For what assures her present every year?
In dark accidents the mind’s sufficient grace.


Delmore Schwartz lived and died in New York City.  In between were stints as student or adjunct professor in Madison, Wisconsin, Harvard and Syracuse University. New York City and his parents divorce loomed as a character in his stories and poetry, his sonnet 0 City, City a far cry from Wordsworth’s love affair with London.  Schwartz seemed to bear New York on his shoulders, filling his mind with literature in its public libraries as a young man, surrounding him with artists and intellectuals and then he spit it out after having chewed on it sufficiently for 40 years.  It is said that Schwartz paved the way for Saul Bellows to be Saul Bellows.  If true, its damnable praise that his legacy was being an originality that allowed the next Jewish writer to prosper for excelling even further in defining the loneliness of trying to assimilate as an outsider into a nation of immigrants.

Schwartz was a man of brilliant intellect whose professional zenith peaked in his 20’s.  He was touted by William Carlos Williams.  He was an acquaintance if not friend of Robert Lowell and John Berryman. Lowell penned a tribute or a curse in honor of him. Schwartz suffered the burdens of genius, mental illness, creativity, alcoholism and poverty.  He died  at the age of 53 of a heart attack.  His body unclaimed by family and friends he had grown estranged from years before.

Schwartz writes with a clear voice, an impulse driven by a deep understanding of literature and a willingness to work within the confines of tradition to forge something new.  The subjects of his poems were often stark.  His sonnets a love song to words and and ideas more than people.

What to make of the first line and his association of the American-ness of the word ‘sure’?  Schwartz was a first generation Romanian Jew, who grew up in respectable if not the upper middle class in New York City.  That all changed in an instant when his father died suddenly at age 49.  Apparently dying young was the one true inheritance his father passed on to his son.   The ‘sureness’ of being American may have eluded Schwartz. And yet the freedoms that invention allowed were not lost on his awakening as an artist. For what was possible for him in America would have been impossible in the birth place of his parents.


Sonnet

by Delmore Schwartz

I follow thought and what the world announces
I lean to hear, and leaning too far over,
Fall, and babied by confusion, cover
Myself in drowse, too tired by such bounces.
But in sleep are dreams across zigzagging snow
Descending quietly and slow, like minutes,
And on this peace the soul again begins its
Rhetoric of desire, older than Jericho,
And rails once more, like birds of early morning
Urchinous on branches and like newsboys,
“Extra, this is the meaning of life,
Here is the real good, beyond all turning,”
Till night goes home, astonished by such cries,
I wake up, and, to feel superior, I laugh.