“The public will believe anything, so long as it is not founded on truth.”
by Edith Sitwell
(During a Great Battle, 1916)
The floors are slippery with blood:
The world gyrates too. God is good
That while His wind blows out the light
For those who hourly die for us –
We still can dance, each night.
The music has grown numb with death –
But we will suck their dying breath,
The whispered name they breathed to chance,
To swell our music, make it loud
That we may dance, – may dance.
We are the dull blind carrion-fly
That dance and batten. Though God die
Mad from the horror of the light –
The light is mad, too, flecked with blood, –
We dance, we dance, each night.
The story of Abraham – Sarah and Isaac is a story of belief, so powerful that fathers are willing to sacrifice their beloved sons in devotion to their gods. But the part in Genesis that is equally important, is that God interceded on Isaac’s behalf and sent an angel and saved Isaac from his Father’s zealousness. Peaceful intervention is the moral of that story, not blind obedience. Who are the angels in your midst interceding on behalf of peace?
by W. S. Merwin (1927 – 1919)
Brave comrade, answer! When you joined the war,
What left you? “Wife and children, wealth and friends,
A storied home whose ancient roof-tree bends
Above such thoughts as love tells o’er and o’er.”
Had you no pang or struggle? “Yes; I bore
Such pain on parting as at hell’s gate rends
The entering soul, when from its grasp ascends
The last faint virtue which on earth it wore.”
You loved your home, your kindred, children, wife;
“No, when the fight begins within himself, a man is worth something.”
For The Anniversary of my Death
by W. S. Merwin
Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Like the beam of a lightless star
Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what
In as much as spring is a season of renewal, it can be equally a season of death. Whether you are a Christian or not, the Lenten season brings reminders of loss in sudden and subtle ways. I was reminded of this the past couple weeks watching a friend process again for the millionth time her connection to the landscape of her childhood home that is wrapped in more than memories. It is land that is spiritual and sacred in all seasons, particularly spring as returning swans and sand hill cranes bring with them connections to springs past. It is a place where both the life and death of loved ones still reside and in that sense of place that is home, they remain very much with her.
Lent has many different meanings to different people, but ultimately each of us are wise to find some measure of hope in reckoning our losses. A retired Catholic priest recently gave good advice to a different friend of mine who tragically lost a loved one much, much to prematurely. He said after months of sadness, “Be careful you don’t fall in love with your grief.” Everyone deals with grief in a different way and there is no right or wrong way or length of time, everyone has to work through it at their own speed.
In processing the death of my Mother’s sudden passing, I came to recognize that for myself, releasing grief was not an act of releasing the very physical presence of my Mother who still resides in my heart. For me it was a process of making sure my grief doesn’t cast a long shadow on the living who still bask in my light that shines among them and in that way, honor my Mother who lit that candle in my soul.
If you are grieving the loss of a loved one this spring, I hope you can find a suitable resting spot that is part of the place you call home to bury a slice of the intensity of that grief, so that you’ll always know where it is, and so that you can safely move on in ways that give you grace and bring renewal.
A Sequence of Sonnets on the Death of Robert Browning
by Algernon Charles Swinburne
Among the wondrous ways of men and time
He went as one that ever found and sought
And bore in hand the lamp-like spirit of thought
To illume with instance of its fire sublime
The dusk of many a cloudlike age and clime.
No spirit in shape of light and darkness wrought,
No faith, no fear, no dream, no rapture, nought
That blooms in wisdom, nought that burns in crime,
No virtue girt and armed and helmed with light,
No love more lovely than the snows are white,
No serpent sleeping in some dead soul’s tomb,
No song-bird singing from some live soul’s height,
“On the last day of the world I would want to plant a tree.”
W. S. Merwin
The Wings of Daylight
by W. S. Merwin
Brightness appears showing us everything
it reveals the splendors it calls everything
but shows it to each of us alone
and only once and only to look at
not to touch or hold in our shadows
what we see is never what we touch
what we take turns out to be something else
what we see that one time departs untouched
while other shadows gather around us
the world’s shadows mingle with our own
we had forgotten them but they know us
they remember us as we always were
they were at home here before the first came
everything will leave us except the shadows
but the shadows carry the whole story
at first daybreak they open their long wings
William Stanley Merwin lived in solitude in Hawaii, living a life of poetry since 1971, reportedly steadfastly refusing to answer the telephone. God bless him for rejecting technology as an unnecessary interference. His poetry spoke with a clarity of a connection to nature and the whim that nature imparts between beauty and tragedy. Merwin’s style can be a bit opaque at times, but I like my poetry on the side of the mystics. I don’t believe that poets should be forced to spell out all their secrets or scribble them down in proper grammar and punctuation, we’ll leave that to novelists and journalists.
A sense of astonishment runs through much of Merwin’s work. It feels genuine and not forced. Astonishment in the force of nature’s beauty, astonishment in love, astonishment in the good fortune that was his life. It is infecticious if you let it.
I have been in a state of astonishment lately. Astonished at the ability of life to change in an instant for the good. Astonishment in the beginnings of a new relationship. Astonishment in the sudden undaunted optimism for the future. I hope to surf that astonishment as a wave as I grow younger by the day, by the year, by the decade….
One of the Lives
by W. S. Merwin
If I had not met the red-haired boy whose father . . had broken a leg parachuting into Provence
to join the resistance in the final stage of the war . . and so had been killed there as the Germans were moving north
out of Italy and if the friend who was with him . . as he was dying had not had an elder brother
who also died young quite differently in peacetime . . leaving two children one of them with bad health
who had been kept out of school for a whole year by an illness . . and if I had written anything else at the top
of the examination form where it said college . . of your choice or if the questions that day had been
put differently and if a young woman in Kittanning . . had not taught my father to drive at the age of twenty
so that he got the job with the pastor of the big church . . in Pittsburgh where my mother was working and if
I would not have found myself on an iron cot . . with my head by the fireplace of a stone farmhouse
that had stood empty since some time before I was born . . I would not have travelled so far to lie shivering
with fever though I was wrapped in everything in the house . . nor have watched the unctuous doctor hold up his needle
at the window in the rain light of October . . I would not have seen through the cracked pane the darkening
valley with its river sliding past the amber mountains . . nor have wakened hearing plums fall in the small hour
thinking I knew where I was as I heard them fall.
Where it begins will remain a question
for the time being at least which is to
say for this lifetime and there is no
other life that can be this one again
and where it goes after that only one
at a time is ever about to know
though we have it by heart as one and though
we remind each other on occasion
How often may the clarinet rehearse
alone the one solo before the one
time that is heard after all the others
telling the one thing that they all tell of
it is the sole performance of a life
come back I say to it over the waters
William Stanley Merwin died four days ago on March 15. Merwin was the recipient of the Pulitzer Prize twice, separated by 38 years, the first in 1971 and the second in 2009, putting him in rarefied air among poets with everyone looking up at Robert Frost who received four, a bit hoggish I think, having the inability to write crap for an extended period in his career so someone else could bring home some bling.
Merwin and MacLeish helped balance the scales in the poetry world by showing it is possible to be a poet and live to a ripe old age and not smoke and drink yourself to death prematurely with an anxiety ridden existance as the source of your muse or worse yet, stick your head in an oven like a few other Pulitzer prize winners. Fortunately, the Pulitzer committee does not take into account the theatrical nature of the poet’s self-destruction as a criteria for receiving the award. They only look at the body of work and in both MacLeish’s and Merwin’s cases the body of work is long and substantial. Each lived big lives and expanded the world of poetry through their contributions. MacLeish also a recipient of the Pulitzer in 1933.
The poem below snuck up on me. Preparing for this blog post, I read a number of MacLeish’s better known poems and kept coming back to this poem. I can’t explain why, other than it feels like a poem that is a private conversation between the poet and the reader in the quiet of the moment, a whisper in your ear, a confidence between a favorite uncle and his much younger protege, saying “pay attention, your life is happening, right now.” So pay attention and enjoy, both your life and this poem.
The Rock In The Sea
By Archibald MacLeish (1892 – 1982)
Think of our blindness where the water burned!
Are we so certain that those wings, returned
And turning, we had half discerned
Before our dazzled eyes had surely seen
The bird aloft there, did not mean?—
Our hearts so seized upon the sign!
Think how we sailed up-wind, the brine
Tasting of daphne, the enormous wave
Thundering in the water cave—
Thunder in stone. And how we beached the skiff
And climbed the coral of that iron cliff
And found what only in our hearts we’d heard—
The silver screaming of that one, white bird:
The fabulous wings, the crimson beak
That opened, red as blood, to shriek
And clamor in that world of stone,
No voice to answer but its own.
What certainty, hidden in our hearts before,
Found in the bird its metaphor?