my failures have become,
Scraping chairs across the room
they sit down next to me
like family almost,
and indeed we have grown
to look alike.
One of them always puts
a log on the fire
and though its wet
and fouls the room
I am warm for awhile,
and drunk with yawning
I sometimes fall asleep
Rilke was Austrian by birth, but traveled extensively in Europe and eventually settled in Switzerland. During his travels he met novelists (Tolstoy, Pasternak) sculptors (Rodin) and painters, often working for some of them or using the artists he met for creative inspiration for his writing. He died young from Leukemia. Rilke moved in artistic and intellectual circles for his times. His writing is deeply mystical and has inspired numerous poets I admire, Pastan, Bly and Lowell are but a short list top of mind.
I recently picked up a book of Rilke’s sonnets translated by Stephen Mitchell. I recommend it. Mitchell is a talented translator having tackled projects in addition to poetry on religion and spirituality in Chinese, German and Hebrew. I am intrigued by Mitchell’s The Gospel According to Jesus: A New Translation and Guide to His Essential Teachings for Believers and Unbelievers (1993), Tao Te Ching (1992) and The Book of Job (1992). I have at least five different translations of the Tao Te Ching, I would be curious to see Mitchell’s version.
I am always fascinated by self portraits. Someday I would like to think I will have time to create another self portrait, maybe even one with paint. To date, the stained glass, lead creation above is the only one I have ever done. However, the idea of creating a self-portrait in words as a poem is intriguing. Am I capable of depicting a faithful rendering of myself in words or paint? Interesting to consider. Have you crafted a self portrait or more than one? Where does it hang, in your house or someone else’s?
by Rainer Maria Rilke
The stamina of an old long-noble race
in the eyebrows’ heavy arches. In the mild
blue eyes the solemn anguish of a child
and here and there humility — not a fool’s
but feminine: the look of one who serves.
The mouth quite ordinary large and straight
composed yet not willing to speak out
when necessary. The forehead still naive
most comfortable in shadows looking down.
This as a whole just hazily foreseen —
never in any joy of suffering
collected for a firm accomplishment;
and yet as though from far off with scattered things
a serious true work was being planned.
“I made a list of things I have to remember and a list of things I need to forget and then I see they are the same list.”
A New Poet
By Linda Pastan
Finding a new poet
is like finding a new wildflower
out in the woods. You don’t see
its name in the flower books, and
nobody you tell believes
in its odd color or the way
its leaves grow in splayed rows
down the whole length of the page. In fact
the very page smells of spilled
red wine and the mustiness of the sea
on a foggy day – the odor of truth
and of lying.
And the words are so familiar,
so strangely new, words
you almost wrote yourself, if only
in your dreams there had been a pencil
or a pen or even a paintbrush,
if only there had been a flower.
I have been reading Linda Pastan’s book The Five Stages of Grief. There are some remarkable poems in it and last week I spent some time reading more of her work on-line. She is one of those poets that the more I read the more I wonder why I haven’t run into her before this year. Every year I put together a little book of my favorite poems from the year and I think this year half of them could be Pastan.
Pastan was born the same year as my Mother, so it could be my affinity for her writing is in part because she speaks of things in ways that ring true to my inner ears, her words expressive in ways that are not unlike things my Mother said. Each generation wrestles with its own unique challenges and opportunities. My parents and Pastan grew up during the great depression. They learned to make do with what you had and that ability carried over into their inner life as well, not expecting or wanting too much of themselves or others. Pastan’s writing is private, she reveals just enough to draw the reader into her prose, but doesn’t get carried away in personal details that would be too revealing for either. She knows how to maintain a line of modesty in her poetry that serves to keep the reader thinking without veering into lurid thoughts all on their own.
Do you have poets that remind you of your parents? If yes, what emotions does that create for you when you read them?
by Don Paterson
In the same way that the mindless diamond keeps
one spark of the planet’s early fires
trapped forever in its net of ice,
it’s not love’s later heat that poetry holds,
but the atom of the love that drew it forth
from the silence: so if the bright coal of his love
begins to smoulder, the poet hears his voice
suddenly forced, like a bar-room singer’s — boastful
with his own huge feeling, or drowned by violins;
but if it yields a steadier light, he knows
the pure verse, when it finally comes, will sound
like a mountain spring, anonymous and serene.
Beneath the blue oblivious sky, the water
sings of nothing, not your name, not mine.
“It is all around us, free, this wonderful life: clear jingle of tire chains, the laughter of ice that breaks under our boots. Each hour’s a gift to those who take it up.”
― Ted Kooser, The Wheeling Year: A Poet’s Field Book
The Obligation To Be Happy
by Linda Paston
It is more onerous
than the rites of beauty
or housework, harder than love.
But you expect it of me casually,
the way you expect the sun
to come up, not in spite of rain
or clouds but because of them.
And so I smile, as if my own fidelity
to sadness were a hidden vice—
that downward tug on my mouth,
my old suspicion that health
and love are brief irrelevancies,
no more than laughter in the warm dark
strangled at dawn.
Happiness. I try to hoist it
on my narrow shoulders again—
a knapsack heavy with gold coins.
I stumble around the house,
bump into things.
Only Midas himself
I have the annoying habit of being in a good mood in the morning when I get up, annoying at least to those that enjoy a bit of melancholy and gloom with their first cup of coffee. I realize that there is little difference between the two breakfast visages, each its own armor to the start of the day and separated in humor by less than the width of smile.
The harder acceptance for me is the realization that for some people happiness is a burden they would prefer to not carry around with them. Happiness is something uncomfortable to them, an infrequent, temporary visitor that stays only awkwardly for a quick spot of tea and then makes a tepid excuse for why it needs to hurry off again. Linda Paston’s poem provides genuine insight into something foreign to my nature, not quite full blown depression but melancholy.
I heard this week a perky scientist explaining on NPR they have isolated a hormonal response in mice which prevents them from going into depression under stress. It sounds like a such a wonderful idea, particularly to people like myself that struggle to understand the true nature of depression having never experienced it. But what do we lose as a species if we fail to feel the full range of emotions? Depression that results in suicide is a mental state to be avoided and can be medically addressed, but grief, the blues, sadness and meloncholy are not fatal conditions and a normal spectrum of the human condition. Next time someone is sad in your midst, hesitate before you tell them to “cheer up.” Linda Paston’s poem a potent reminder that we all experience life differently and one person’s blues maybe another person’s way to live fully in their skin.
by Ted Kooser
Today, from a distance, I saw you
walking away, and without a sound
the glittering face of a glacier
slid into the sea. An ancient oak
fell in the Cumberlands, holding only
a handful of leaves, and an old woman
scattering corn to her chickens looked up
for an instant. At the other side
of the galaxy, a star thirty-five times
the size of our own sun exploded
and vanished, leaving a small green spot
on the astronomer’s retina
as he stood on the great open dome
of my heart with no one to tell.