You Could….Not Know Why, At Any Given Moment

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Off A Side Road Near Stauton

by Stanley Plumly (1939 – 2019)

Some nothing afternoon, no one anywhere,
an early autumn stillness in the air,
the kind of empty day you fill by taking in
the full size of the valley and its layers leading
slowly to the Blue Ridge, the quality of country,
if you stand here long enough, you could stay
for, step into, the way a landscape, even on a wall,
pulls you in, one field at a time, pasture and fall
meadow, high above the harvest, perfect
to the tree line, then spirit clouds and intermittent
sunlit smoky rain riding the tops of the mountains,
though you could walk until it’s dark and not reach those rains—
you could walk the rest of the day into the picture
and not know why, at any given moment, you’re there.

Labor Day is here, marking the end of  summer.   Today and tomorrow will be the last of the swimming season in Minnesota (at least for me) as the lows are going to be in the 40’s all week after Monday and the lakes will suddenly be too cold.  This has to be the strangest summer of my entire existence.  It was utterly devoid of most rituals and events that have marked summer’s passing since I was a child.  The only thing that I have done that felt the same was to swim and camp, but summer music festivals, fireworks, friends BBQ and fish fries, the State Fair, and an endless list of summer work events were all cancelled this year.   This loss of ritual strangely made the summer slip by too quickly, as the weeks and months ran together.

In trying to find a poem to sum up my feelings on what has transpired since George Floyd’s death in May, I kept coming back to a poem I shared in my Auden retrospective in January of 2019.  Auden’s line “we must love one another or die,” sticks in my brain as the one call to action that might heal this nation.  In my opinion, it is the only thing that might work.  We aren’t going to solve inequality through partisan gamesmanship and politics, from either side of the political spectrum.  Somewhere we have to find the ability for mutual respect and acceptance of differences to co-exist again in America in a productive manner, both sides have to flourish.  There is no winning in love.

With roughly 60 days before the election I am bracing for what will be a glaring, blaring intolerable two months of  political attack ads and over reaching rhetoric.  All the more reason to retreat from the media into the silence of nature and cast my vote by mail.  I will attempt to avoid the shrillness of American politics as best I can and hope that change is coming after the first of the year. Not just in the White House, but in our hearts and lives as well.


September 1, 1939

(Excerpt)

by W. H. Auden

All I have is a voice
To undo the folded lie,
The romantic lie in the brain
Of the sensual man-in-the-street
And the lie of Authority
Whose buildings grope the sky:
There is no such thing as the State
And no one exists alone;
Hunger allows no choice
To the citizen or the police;
We must love one another or die.

Defenseless under the night
Our world in stupor lies;
Yet, dotted everywhere,
Ironic points of light
Flash out wherever the Just
Exchange their messages:
May I, composed like them
Of Eros and of dust,
Beleaguered by the same
Negation and despair,
Show an affirming flame.

Once There Was A Machine For Breathing

Dog Star Days
Dies Caniculares – or Dog Star Days

Polio

by Stanley Plumly

Those humid hours that lingered on for days.
The body stretched in breathlessness for days.

In Ohio dies caniculares
meant something: virus, Sirius, Dog Star days.

Whatever it was was like catching cold.
Bad headaches, swelling, fevers, chills for days.

(The boy in braces for the March of Dimes
lurched toward the lights of the camera dazed.)

When the night sky cleared of vapor: there
in Canis Major the stars that fixed our days.

We knew if we died we could join these stars.
For the girl in the iron lung dies were days.

We knew if we survived Labor Day, then school:
another year of colds and growing pains for days.


My parents grew up in the 1930’s, before a polio vaccine had been developed.  Childhood disease and death were a very real threat to the well being of communities and families in their childhoods.  Poliomyelitis or Polio as it more commonly referred,  is almost an inverse to COVID-19 in some ways of who it impacts and when.  COVID-19, though it can infect all age groups, appears to have the most serious complications in those over age 65,  and is currently most prevalent in Northern hemisphere during colder temperatures, whereas polio is a childhood disease that struck during the heat of the summer months.

Plumly deftly remembers the child hood phantom that for his generation was polio. How terrifying it must have been to watch a brother, sister, friend in the neighborhood, cousin or school mate, go from active healthy boy or girl, to suddenly in a fight for their lives.  And then for those stricken to the point they couldn’t continue to breath on their own, an eternity of living in an iron lung.

Polio is a difficult poem to interpret unless you understand the latin words dies caniculares.  It refers to the roughly 30 day period when the greek astronomers predicted the hottest weather based on the position of the Dog Star in the night sky; July 20 to August 20.   Dies = Days.  That it also means dying or the process of death in English is where the poet is trying to get us to join his childhood world.

I saw a Sixty Minutes broadcast a couple of years ago that told the story about the last remaining technicians that know how to repair iron lungs and keep them in good working order.   Only a few polio patients that require iron lungs were/are still alive. It had become an oddity, novel, something that once was commonplace, both the people and the parts to keep iron lungs working.

Is it ironic or simply the random course of nature, that a new phantom is haunting our winter months, and the thing that is in shortest supply is the modern version of an iron lung, respirators, to help the sick, fight the good fight in living? Though this new phantom has begun in the depths of the cold of winter, it will change our days ahead, well into the rising of the Dog Star in our summer skies.


 

The Iron Lung

by Stanley Plumly

So this is the dust that passes through porcelain,
so this is the unwashed glass left over from supper,
so this is the dust in the attic, in August,
and this is the down on the breath of the sleeper

If we could fold our arms, but we can’t.
If we could cross our legs, but we can’t.
If we could put the mind to rest.
But our fathers have put this task before us.

I can neither move nor rise.
The neighborhood is gathering, and now
my father is lifting me into the ambulance
among the faces of my family. His face is

a blur or a bruise and he holds me
as if I had just been born. When I wake
I am breathing out of all proportion to myself.
My whole body is a lung; I am floating

above a doorway or a grave. And I know
I am in this breathing room as one
who understands how breath is passed
from father to son and back again.

At night, when my father comes to talk,
I tell him we have shared this body long enough.
He nods, like the speaker in a dream.
He knows that I know we are only talking.

Once there was a machine for breathing.
It would embrace the body and make a kind of love.
And when it was finished it would rise
like nothing at all above the earth

to drift through the daylight silence.
But at dark, in deep summer, if you thought you heard
something like your mother’s voice calling you home,
you could lie down where you were and listen to the dead.

A Yesterday I Find Almost Impossible To Lift

stanley-plumly.
Stanley Plumly (1939 – 2019)

“And now each day seems,
Like my own soul, farther and farther off,
Lost in its light as in a dream in which I meant to ask you something.”

Stanley Plumly

Five Flights Up

by Elizabeth Bishop

Still dark.
The unknown bird sits on his usual branch.
The little dog next door barks in his sleep
inquiringly, just once.
Perhaps in his sleep, too, the bird inquires
once or twice, quavering.
Questions—if that is what they are—
answered directly, simply,
by day itself.

Enormous morning, ponderous, meticulous;
gray light streaking each bare branch,
each single twig, along one side,
making another tree, of glassy veins . . .
The bird still sits there. Now he seems to yawn.

The little black dog runs in his yard.
His owner’s voice arises, stern,
“You ought to be ashamed!”
What has he done?
He bounces cheerfully up and down;
he rushes in circles in the fallen leaves.

Obviously, he has no sense of shame.
He and the bird know everything is answered,
all taken care of,
no need to ask again.
—Yesterday brought to today so lightly,
(A yesterday I find almost impossible to lift).


I enjoy the connections that poets make as inspiration in their work.  I like to try and connect those dots between poems.  A test of a poet’s prowess among the academic community is often the unique quality of their voice in their work, this idea that poetry has to be constantly evolving.   I am not sure that’s possible or even always interesting. Everything is built on the foundation of something, influenced by something.  Poetry written with no influences is likely not poetry in my mind, the poet disingenuous in giving credit where credit is due.  We all have to start with something, start somewhere. We travel to what we think are unique destinations of the mind, only to find the cairns of past adventurers, awaiting us in literature and art.

Freud is quoted as saying,  “Everywhere I go I find a poet has been there before me.”  

I thoroughly enjoyed both of these poems. The fact they are connect by one line, “-Yesterday brought to today so lightly,” gives them an interesting push/pull when read back to back. For the time being, my yesterday’s are not as impossible to lift as the uncertainty of my tomorrows. I’ll get more used to this  new uncharted territory of worry for our loved ones and the unthinking way we took for granted our good health in the past, but it will take a while. If there is blessing of this pandemic is to make our today’s more mindful and not a thing we take for granted.  Be well.


Variations on a line from Elizabeth Bishop’s “Five Flights Up”

by Stanley Plumly

Sometimes it’s the shoes, the tying and untying,
the bending of the heart to put them on,
take them off, the rush of blood
between the head and feet, my face,
sometimes, if I could see it, astonished.
Other times the stairs, three, four stages
at the most, “flights” we call them,
in honor of the wings we’ll never have,
the fifth floor the one that kills the breath,
where the bird in the building flies to first.
Love, too, a leveler, a dying all its own,
the parts left behind not to be replaced,
a loss ongoing, and every day increased,
like rising in the night, at 3:00 am,
to watch the snow or the dead leaf fall,
the rings around the streetlight in the rain,
and then the rain, the red fist in the heart
opening and closing almost without me.
“ — Yesterday brought to today so lightly!”
The morning, more and more, like evening.
When I bend to tie my shoes and the blood
fills the cup, it’s as if I see into the hidden earth,
see the sunburned path on which I pass
in shoes that look like sandals
and arrive at a house where my feet
are washed and wiped with my mother’s hair
and anointed with the autumn oils of wildflowers.