The Secret of Secrets

Ahkmatova

Anna Akmatova by Nathan Altman

On The Road

by Anna Akmatova (1889 – 1966)
Translated by Jane Kenyon

Though this land is not my own
I will never forget it,
or the waters of its ocean,
fresh and delicately icy.

Sand on the bottom is whiter
. .than chalk,
and the air is drunk, like wine.
Late sun lays bare
the rosy limbs of the pine trees.

And the sun goes down in waves
. .of ether
in such a way that I can’t tell
if the day is ending, or the world,
or if the secrets of secrets is within
me again.


Portrait of a Figure Near Water

by Jane Kenyon

Rebuked, she turned and ran
uphill to the barn. Anger, the inner
arsonist, held a match to her brain.
She observed her life: against her will
it survived the unwavering flame.

The barn was empty of animals.
Only a swallow tilted
near the beams, and bats
hung from the rafters
the roof sagged between.

Her breath became steady
where, years past, the farmer cooled
the big tin amphoræ of milk.
The stone trough was still
filled with water: she watched it
and received its calm.

So it is when we retreat in anger:
we think we burn alone
and there is no balm.
Then water enters, though it makes
no sound.

It Seemed Like The Next Thing To Do

 

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Photograph by Rikki Patton. 2019

To live as gently as I can;
To be, no matter where, a man;
To take what comes of good or ill
And cling to faith and honor still;
To do my best, and let that stand
The record of my brain and hand;
And then, should failure come to me,
Still work and hope for victory.

Edgar Guest

 

Eating The Cookies

by Jane Kenyon

The cousin from Maine, knowing
about her diverticulitis, let out the nuts,
so the cookies weren’t entirely to my taste,
but they were good enough; yes, good enough.

Each time I emptied a drawer or shelf
I permitted myself to eat one.
I cleared the closet of silk caftans
that slipped easily from clattering hangers,
and from the bureau I took her nightgowns
and sweaters, financial documents
neatly cinctured in long gray envelopes,
and the hairnets and peppermints she’d tucked among
Lucite frames abounding with great-grandchildren,
solemn in their Christmas finery.

Finally the drawers were empty,
the bags full, and the largest cookie,
which I had saved for last, lay
solitary in the tin with a nimbus
of crumbs around it. There would be no more
parcels from Portland. I took it up
and sniffed it, and before eating it,
pressed it against my forehead, because
it seemed like the next thing to do.


Edgar Guest was never a candidate for serious literary awards, but his popularity during his lifetime is largely forgotten, though quotes from his more than 11,000 published poems still make their way into our cultural milieu. Guest began his career as a copy boy at the Detroit Free Press and went on to be a reporter and regular columnist. At his height of popularity he was published weekly in more than 300 papers nationwide and in the 1940’s had his own radio show, sponsored by Land O’ Lakes creamery.  Guest’s poems are frequently inspirational, rhyming, optimistic and steeped in a light religious sauce. There isn’t much heavy lifting required to understand Guest’s poetry. In our 24/7 news cycle, I think it would it be refreshing to see newspapers publish poetry again. The New Yorker magazine continues to include poetry in every issue, I would love it if more publications followed suit.

This time of year I generally dig out the box that has some of my favorite holiday children’s books and reread a few from my children’s childhood or my own.  Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree remains one of my favorites as a fun rhymed children’s book about the magic of Christmas.  Do you have holiday children’s books that you re-read every year?  I would love to hear from you, please share your favorites.


At Christmas (Excerpt)

By Edgar Guest

Man is ever in a struggle
and he’s oft misunderstood;
There are days the worst that’s in him
is the master of the good,
But at Christmas kindness rules him
and he puts himself aside
And his petty hates are vanquished
and his heart is opened wide.
Oh, I don’t know how to say it,
but somehow it seems to me
That at Christmas man is almost
what God sent him here to be.

Two Who Are Mostly Good

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I love potatoes and my potatoes love me.

Potato

by Jane Kenyon

In haste one evening while making dinner
I threw away a potato that was spoiled
on one end. The rest would have been

redeemable. In the yellow garbage pail
it became the consort of coffee grounds,
banana skins, carrot peelings.
I pitched it onto the compost
where steaming scraps and leaves
return, like bodies over time, to earth.

When I flipped the fetid layers with a hay
fork to air the pile, the potato turned up
unfailingly, as if to revile me—

looking plumper, firmer, resurrected
instead of disassembling. It seemed to grow
until I might have made shepherd’s pie
for a whole hamlet, people who pass the day
dropping trees, pumping gas, pinning
hand-me-down clothes on the line.

 


Happy Thanksgiving.  I hope this Thanksgiving finds you surrounded by friends and family bound together by gratitude, sharing food and fellowship.  Will you say a prayer of thanksgiving as you sit down together to eat? Aloud or silently?  What are you grateful for and to whom do you want to bestow a prayer gratitude? Gratefulness and thankfulness are founded on awareness. Without being aware of how we are connected to our communities, our families, our co-workers our friends, we can’t be thankful.

Is not prayer also a study of truth,–a sally of the soul into the unfound infinite? No man ever prayed heartily, without learning something. But when a faithful thinker, resolute to detach every object from personal relations, and see it in the light of thought, shall, at the same time, kindle science with the fire of the holiest affections, then will god go forth anew into creation.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

In an increasingly secular world, where talk of God and gratitude make some at our tables uncomfortable, invite everyone to speak their truth on what they are thankful for, regardless if the only divinity is desert and your personal prayer of thanksgiving is said in silence with eyes wide open smiling at  each of the people present at your table.

Take the time this holiday weekend to give thanks.  Pick up the phone and call an old friend.  Touch base with the elderly family member that might be feeling isolated.  Commune with nature and talk a walk of thanksgiving – thinking about all you have to be grateful for in  your life.

Happy Thanksgiving.


The Bean Eaters

by Gwendolyn Brooks

They eat beans mostly, this old yellow pair.
Dinner is a casual affair.
Plain chipware on a plain and creaking wood,
Tin flatware.

Two who are Mostly Good.
Two who have lived their day,
But keep on putting on their clothes
And putting things away.

And remembering . . .
Remembering, with twinklings and twinges,
As they lean over the beans in their rented back room that
          is full of beads and receipts and dolls and cloths,
          tobacco crumbs, vases and fringes.

Sorrows Much Keener Than These

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The Blue Bowl

by Jane Kenyon

Like primitives we buried the cat
with his bowl. Bare-handed
we scraped sand and gravel
back into the hole. It fell with a hiss
and thud on his side,
on his long red fur, the white feathers
that grew between his toes, and his
long, not to say aquiline, nose.
We stood and brushed each other off.
There are sorrows much keener than these.
Silent the rest of the day, we worked,
ate, stared, and slept. It stormed
all night; now it clears, and a robin
burbles from a dripping bush
like the neighbor who means well
but always says the wrong thing.

 I find myself this weekend in a small town on the Mississippi River in Iowa, the bars on its main street hopping and the lovely summer August night air soft and warm.   I will let the town go unnamed, as I am not sure I want to let the secret out. There are some towns that deserve some level of privacy and this is one of them.   River towns have a certain vibrancy that comes from the wealth accumulated from the grain terminals and movement of goods and people along its railroads and barges.   The economy in this town not very unlike what prosperity looked like 80 years earlier; main streets success still hinges on the yield of the upcoming crop in the surrounding fields in the nearby counties.

August in corn country is green and lush, but tinges of color are starting to show that signal fall isn’t far away.  But for this weekend, summer is still in command and there is a wedding to attend tomorrow, beer to drink, a dance or two to twirl and the enjoyment of being able to walk from the hotel down main street to where the celebrations will begin, under the clear blue skies of a prairie sun.  Let’s hope the newly weds are still in love in 50 years.

I am missing the funeral of a good friend and a family reunion to be at this wedding. Summer weekends are that precious a commodity that you have to make sacrifices or clone yourself to be all the places you would like to be at one time.  So tomorrow we’ll honor all my family with sacred vows, those present and those passed and toast them all with good cheer.  What are you toasting on this precious summer weekend?   Where are the two places you would most like to be at once on this August Saturday?


Let Evening Come

by Jane Kenyon

Let the light of late afternoon
shine through chinks in the barn, moving
up the bales as the sun moves down.

Let the cricket take up chafing
as a woman takes up her needles
and her yarn. Let evening come.

Let dew collect on the hoe abandoned
in long grass. Let the stars appear
and the moon disclose her silver horn.

Let the fox go back to its sandy den.
Let the wind die down. Let the shed
go black inside. Let evening come.

To the bottle in the ditch, to the scoop
in the oats, to air in the lung
let evening come.

Let it come, as it will, and don’t
be afraid. God does not leave us
comfortless, so let evening come.

 

If It’s Darkness We’re Having, Let it Be Extravagant

tree
Christmas tree carcass waiting for the garbage man.

Taking Down The Tree

by Jane Kenyon

“Give me some light!” cries Hamlet’s
uncle midway through the murder
of Gonzago. “Light! Light!” cry scattering
courtesans. Here, as in Denmark,
it’s dark at four, and even the moon
shines with only half a heart.

The ornaments go down into the box:
the silver spaniel, My Darling
on its collar, from Mother’s childhood
in Illinois; the balsa jumping jack
my brother and I fought over,
pulling limb from limb. Mother
drew it together again with thread
while I watched, feeling depraved
at the age of ten.

With something more than caution
I handle them, and the lights, with their
tin star-shaped reflectors, brought along
from house to house, their pasteboard
toy suitcases increasingly flimsy.
Tick, tick, the desiccated needles drop.

By suppertime all that remains is the scent
of balsam fir. If it’s darkness
we’re having, let it be extravagant.


What a difference there is between putting up the tree and taking it down.  In my experience, we usher in the grand festival of the Christmas season with the annual family ceremony of selecting, transporting and then decorating the Christmas tree, eggnog in hand, Christmas carols playing on Spotify.  Then several weeks later, generally only one person finds themselves with the solitary task of taking the ornaments off, boxing them up and kicking the tree to the curb like an ugly sweater some relative gave you on Christmas Day.

A much more pleasurable final resting place for your Christmas tree, if you are fortunate enough to live in a place where you can have a fire in your back yard, is to put your tree out in the burn pit and let it get good and dry to become a natural inferno for next year’s first bonfire in the spring. That’s a sure-fire one match fire.  It’s also a reminder why our great grandparents before electricity took their lives in their own hands in lighting candles on the Christmas tree.  No wonder prohibition was passed in the 1920s!

My Mother always waited until 12th night to take down her Christmas tree. The twelve days of Christmas begins on Christmas day and ends on January 5. I like the term Christmastide to describe this period, as it creates an image of being swept away by the spirit of good tidings.

This year I am awash in pears, having been gifted several boxes of fruit. Trying to eat them all up before twelfth night is my challenge as pears go from perfect to putrid in about 3 days. I am making pear tatin, pear-blue cheese salad, pear sauce and would you care for a pear if I left it outside your door as I am playing ding dong ditch with my neighbors with pears in about 3 days. Please, next year, send me oranges.  At least I can turn them into screwdrivers on New Years day.


Sonnet

by Jane Tyson Clement (1917 – 2000)

Seeking the fact that lies behind the flower
the soul will break its own mortality;
searching the time that lies beyond the hour
the soul will yield its blind serenity;
that is but briefly to be ill at ease
and then forever to be tranquil-eyed,
stirring the wrath of temporal deities
who hurl pale lightning when they are defied.
The least fine sheaf of millet will repay
the soul’s slow contemplation, and the still
ages of starlight between day and day;
the climb is steep to mount a sudden hill;
but if man, fearless, follows stars, he’ll find –
lo, he is more than stars, and more than mind.


“Taking Down the Tree” by Jane Kenyon from Collected Poems. Copyright © 2005.  Graywolf Press, http://www.graywolfpress.org.

Even When We Are Young

 

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Donald Hall

Twilight After Haying

by Jane Kenyon (1947 – 1995)

Yes, long shadows go out
from the bales; and yes, the soul
must part from the body:
what else could it do?

The men sprawl near the baler,
too tired to leave the field.
They talk and smoke,
and the tips of their cigarettes
blaze like small roses
in the night air.  (It arrived
and settled among them
before they were aware.)

The moon comes
to count the bales,
and the dispossessed–
Whip-poor-will, Whip-poor-will
–sings from the dusty stubble.

These things happen. . . . the soul’s bliss
and suffering are bound together
like the grasses. . .

The last, sweet exhalations
of timothy and vetch
go out with the song of the bird;
the ravaged field
grows wet with dew.


Few poets wrote as much as about death as Donald Hall.   He made a career of death, he  had plenty of experience from which to draw upon, writing very personally about the loss of his wife Jane Kenyon to cancer.   Does a lifetime of writing about death prepare you for your own?

Hall passed away last weekend at the age of 89.  He was by his own admission pleased by his ability to earn a living as a writer, calling himself a “bandit” for having such good fortune.   Hall was awarded nearly every award and recognition a poet could receive and was by all accounts a writer who wrote hard, nearly every day.

If work is not antidote to death, nor a denial of it, death is a powerful stimulus to work.  Get done what you can.

Donald Hall

 


Affirmation

by Donald Hall (1928 – 2018)

To grow old is to lose everything.
Aging, everybody knows it.
Even when we are young,
we glimpse it sometimes, and nod our heads
when a grandfather dies.
Then we row for years on the midsummer
pond, ignorant and content. But a marriage,
that began without harm, scatters
into debris on the shore,
and a friend from school drops
cold on a rocky strand.
If a new love carries us
past middle age, our wife will die
at her strongest and most beautiful.
New women come and go. All go.
The pretty lover who announces
that she is temporary
is temporary. The bold woman,
middle-aged against our old age,
sinks under an anxiety she cannot withstand.
Another friend of decades estranges himself
in words that pollute thirty years.
Let us stifle under mud at the pond’s edge
and affirm that it is fitting
and delicious to lose everything.