“Love does not begin and end the way we seem to think it does. Love is a battle, love is a war; love is a growing up.”
by James Weldon Johnson (1871 – 1938)
My heart be brave, and do not falter so,
Nor utter more that deep, despairing wail.
Thy way is very dark and drear I know,
But do not let thy strength and courage fail;
For certain as the raven-winged night
Is followed by the bright and blushing morn,
Thy coming morrow will be clear and bright;
’Tis darkest when the night is furthest worn.
Look up, and out, beyond, surrounding clouds,
And do not in thine own gross darkness grope,
Rise up, and casting off thy hind’ring shrouds,
Cling thou to this, and ever inspiring hope:
Tho’ thick the battle and tho’ fierce the fight,
There is a power making for the right.
Le Sporting-club de Monte Carlo (For Lena Horne)
By James Baldwin
The lady is a tramp
The lady is a sight
the lady devastated
an alley or two
reverberated through the valley
which leads to me, and you
the lady is the apple
of God’s eye:
He’s cool enough about it
but He tends to strut a little
when she passes by
the lady is a wonder
daughter of the thunder
with the voice of ages
singing us through.
“Love her but leave her wild….”
– Atticus Finch in Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird
I was in Calgary, Alberta this week, reading the morning paper, and came across an article regarding the small Canadian press Coach House Books. This prestigious literary firm is taking a hiatus on accepting new poetry manuscripts, as they are rethinking their business model on the financial viability of publishing poetry moving forward. Such is the state of things in the poetry world. I appreciate those of you who take the time to read my blog and choose to make poetry part of your day.
I enjoy simple Saturday mornings, waking up with nothing better to do than write. Yesterday was one such morning. My subconscious had been messing with several ideas over the course of the week that turned into the following sonnet. Celebrating my children’s birthday has that effect on me, contemplating passage of time.
A Neil Gaiman quote I totally relate to is:
“Tomorrow may be hell, but today was a good writing day, and on the good writing days nothing else matters.”
This sonnet, Not Too Many, has all the things I enjoy about writing sonnets; double meanings, contradictions, internal rhyming, good mouth feel when read aloud and the ability to be reinterpreted by the reader.
A note about burls. A burl on a tree is a reaction to some kind of foreign stress, most often by an insect, virus or fungus, that causes the tree to wall it up in beauty, protecting itself and the newcomer, changing the very nature of their interaction. Burls can be above ground and visible or below ground and hidden but are always covered in bark and nurtured by the tree.
Not Too Many
By T. A. Fry
Why does old love wend its own designs? In the game of love, I have taken licks Been knocked down, learned new tricks, only to find Sometimes, it was mere lust or politics. Then came children and something wild grew. Love became an ache that took my breath away It’s fierce, complex, bigger than I ever knew. Love’s not negotiable, it’s here to stay, And stay and stay, like a burl on a tree, Each ring a wrinkle, love’s softer side, Another bulge to indulge entirely. For love is the lotion that tanned this hide. If I had a choice, not one, but any I would mend love with words, not too many.
“Things need not have happened to be true. Tales and adventures are the shadow truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes and forgotten.”
by Neil Gaiman
I don’t think that I’ve been in love as such,
Although I liked a few folk pretty well.
Love must be vaster than my smiles or touch.
For brave men died and empires rose and fell
For love, girls follow boys to foreign lands.
And men have followed women into hell.
In plays and poems someone understands,
There’s something makes us more than blood and bone,
And more than biological demands.
For me love’s like the wind unseen, unknown.
I see the trees are bending where it’s been.
I know that it leaves wreckage where it’s blown.
I really don’t know what I love you means.
I think it means don’t leave me here alone.
For more information check out Neil Gaiman’s blog where this sonnet was originally published.
Maybe love is the story, the fairy tale, that we tell ourselves because it is truer and longer lasting than the days we have already forgotten from this past week. And sonnets, the psalms by which we pass those stories down.
by T. A. Fry
Wherein it begins; Salvation. To caress a nape of neck Or silky hair upon a woman’s hock. To crave creation of goose bumps that fleck A breast or smiles that shiver like a shock. I swear no fealty to love’s mirth, nor bow Before any Goddess’s pain or pleasure. I’ll take my memories as a trove and vow When old, to view them at my leisure.
What’s done is done, move on, no turning back. No more open arms. You’ve bled the good From willing hearts, with promises that smack Of dishonest pleas, when stay you never could. Must I void the truth of love once cherished, Just for being human and it perished.
“Either America will destroy ignorance or ignorance will destroy the United States.”
W. E. B. Du Bois
From The Dark Tower
by Countee Cullen
We shall not always plant while others reap
The golden increment of bursting fruit,
Not always countenance, abject and mute
That lesser men should hold their brothers cheap;
Not everlastingly while others sleep
Shall we beguile their limbs with mellow flute,
Not always bend to some more subtle brute;
We were not made eternally to weep.
The night whose sable breast relieves the stark
White stars is no less lovely being dark,
And there are buds that cannot bloom at all
In light, but crumple, piteous, and fall;
So in the dark we hide the heart that bleeds,
And wait, and tend our agonizing seeds
Countee Cullen was a poet, a playwright, a translator, an essayist, a critic, a children’s author and scholar. He managed all that creativity during an intense 25 year career. Countee was part of the Harlem social elite, marrying W. E. B Du Bois’ daughter, with some pomp and circumstance only to have the marriage fail in less than three years under the weight of great expectations. Countee was highly influenced by Yeats, Shelley and A. E. Housman, choosing a classical style of poetry at a time other Harlem Renaissance writers were branching off into more uncharted waters. Countee was unfairly criticized during his career for writing in a style that would appeal to a cross over of white readers and be more publishable. I think his poetry sings with a genuine voice that was of his choosing alone. Countee said it best; “My poetry, I think, has become the way of my giving out what music is within me.” Countee dealt with a wide range of themes in his poetry, but always came back to love.
Song In Spite of Myself
by Countee Cullen
Never love with all your heart,
It only ends in aching;
And bit by bit to the smallest part
That organ will be breaking.
Never love with all your mind,
It only ends in fretting;
In musing on sweet joys behind,
too poignant for forgetting.
Never love with all your soul,
for such there is no ending;
though a mind that frets may find control,
and a shattered heart find mending.
Give but a grain of the heart’s rich seed,
Confine some undercover,
And when love goes, bid him God-speed,
and find another lover.
“I have decided to stick with love. Hate is too great a burden to bear.”
Martin Luther King
Yet Do I Marvel
By Countee Cullen (1903 – 1946)
I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind,
And did He stoop to quibble could tell why
The little buried mole continues blind,
Why flesh that mirrors Him must some day die,
Make plain the reason tortured Tantalus
Is baited by the fickle fruit, declare
If merely brute caprice dooms Sisyphus
To struggle up a never-ending stair.
Inscrutable His ways are, and immune
To catechism by a mind too strewn
With petty cares to slightly understand
What awful brain compels His awful hand.
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!
by Langston Hughes (1902 – 1967)
Sometimes there’s a wind in the Georgia dusk
That cries and cries and cries
Its lonely pity through the Georgia dusk
Veiling what the darkness hides
Sometimes there’s blood in the Georgia dusk
Left by a streak of sun
A crimson trickle in the Georgia dusk
Whose Blood? …Everyone’s
Sometimes a wind in the Georgia dusk
Scatters hate like seed
To sprout its bitter barriers
Where the sunsets bleed
Some time when the river is ice ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or to hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.
I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.
There are certain poems which stand out because of one line. Not to say the entire poem doesn’t have meaning, but there are lines in poems that are like thunderbolts in my brain, electric in the resonance from the shared understanding with the poet. A line or even a few words, which are a whispered secret between us, a secret I am surprised to see on paper more elegantly than I could ever express.
Ask Me by William Stafford is one of those poems. It is a poem I read and re-read more than any other single poem because of one line; “Ask me whether what I have done is my life.” I enjoy my life. I am proud of what I have accomplished, but there is this voice that has arisen in middle age that nags: “I am more than an amalgam of what I have done. I am more than the vector of days, months, and years of experience, more than my successes and failures. My inner life is bigger than what I have accomplished and ever will accomplish.”
Ask Me is as close to a sonnet hiding in plain sight that Stafford published in his life time. It is 14 lines, nearly 10 syllables per line. I have no idea whether Stafford had any conscious associations to a sonnet structure when he wrote this poem, for its power lays not in its structure but in its open-ended questions and images it creates in my mind. Stafford allows me to take solace or vitriol, depending on my mood, from the linkages of the frozen rivers of my life that are at once unmoving and flowing ever faster downstream. Stafford was a pacifist, whose poetry resonates with an acceptance of the human condition and a gentle push to enjoy yourself, even if things are going to hell all around you, with a reminder that this life we live is pretty amazing.
Oh, think not I am faithful to a vow!
Faithless am I save to love’s self alone.
Were you not lovely I would leave you now:
After the feet of beauty fly my own.
Were you not still my hunger’s rarest food,
And water ever to my wildest thirst,
I would desert you — think not but I would! —
And seek another as I sought you first.
But you are mobile as the veering air,
And all your charms more changeful than the tide,
Wherefore to be inconstant is no care:
I have but to continue at your side.
So wanton, light and false, my love, are you,
I am most faithless when I most am true.