“I am two fools, I know, For loving, and for saying so.”
The World’s Last Night
by John Donne
What if this present were the worlds last night?
Marke in my heart, O Soule, where thou dost dwell,
The picture of Christ crucified, and tell
Whether that countenance can thee affright,
Teares in his eyes quench the amasing light,
Blood fills his frownes, which from his pierc’d head fell.
And can that tongue adjudge thee unto hell,
Which pray’d forgivenesse for his foes fierce spight?
No, no; but as in my idolatrie
I said to all my profane mistresses,
Beauty, of pitty, foulnesse onely is
A signe of rigour: so I say to thee,
To wicked spirits are horrid shapes assign’d,
This beauteous forme assures a pitious minde.
Holy Sonnet: XII
by John Donne
WHY are wee by all creatures waited on?
Why doe the prodigall elements supply
Life and food to mee, being more pure than I,
Simple, and further from corruption?
Why brook’st thou, ignorant horse, subjection?
Why dost thou bull, and bore so seelily
Dissemble weaknesses and by’one mans stroke die,
Whose whole kinde, you might swallow and feed upon?
Weaker I am, woe is mee, and worse than you,
You have not sinn’d, nor need be timorous.
But wonder at a greater wonder, for to us
Created nature doth these things subdue,
But their Creator, whom sin, nor nature tyed,
For us, his Creatures, and his foes, hath dyed.
The impulse to create is pure, self sufficient, its own reward or punishment.
Vernon Scannell, A Proper Gentleman.
by Vernon Scannell (1922 – 2007)
My son aged three fell in the nettle bed. ‘Bed’ seemed a curious name for those green spears, That regiment of spite behind the shed: It was no place for rest. With sobs and tears The boy came seeking comfort and I saw White blisters beaded on his tender skin. We soothed him till his pain was not so raw. At last he offered us a watery grin, And then I took my billhook, honed the blade And went outside and slashed in fury with it Till not a nettle in that fierce parade Stood upright any more. And then I lit A funeral pyre to burn the fallen dead, But in two weeks the busy sun and rain Had called up tall recruits behind the shed: My son would often feel sharp wounds again.
Happy Easter. It is a late spring after a cold winter in Minnesota. In my part of the world, regardless the date Easter falls, the minute a farmer puts down his fork after eating ham on Easter Sunday, they think its time to start planting. Patience will be required this year, as the soils are still too wet, the frost is still in the ground, and fields are not fit for spring planting activities to commence. Fresh snow fell across much of the state in the past week. A patient April reigns supreme.
I am personally in need of a James Wright kind of spring; one where in a flourish I suddenly blossom, a spring where the world is in a hurry to become a kaleidoscope of color. We don’t always get what we want. We don’t even get what we need sometimes. In the words of my Mother, a wise, long time kindergarten teacher, “you get what you get, so don’t get upset.” It works for what’s left on the cookie plate and for dealing with mother nature.
In contemplation of Easter’s story of sacrifice, I ponder if human kind is capable of evolving from a state of conflict to a process of resolution or is all peace a solitary and temporary detente? I spent time reviewing religious sonnets with Easter themes and came away from all of them feeling grim. Not the kind of emotion I wanted to share today. Instead I decided to think of Easter as a prayer for our collective sons. What do we wish for our children? Happiness, prosperity, a life well lived. When are we going to stop sending sons (and daughters) into contrived battles of our own making and set them free to live their own lives? Conflict is a generational curse, passed down as an obligation, an inheritance, unless people have the courage to change course. Who will change the course of the war in Ukraine? If it left to the battle field, the conflict will only be seeded deeper in the fertile Ukrainian soil. Easter can also be a story of transformation, rejuvenation, re-birth, the best of what Spring has to offer. What re-birth awaits for you in the coming month? What transformation do you summon the courage to awaken?
by Mihaela Moscaliuc
for my son, enwombed
May you harvest your language from the alphabet of butterflies, may their wings brushstroke your name on translucent scrolls, filter air for your breath, teach you flight the way I can’t.
May you preserve the wisdom with which you arrive, the metaphors through which you’ll first parse the world, the moon always a ripe banana, always within reach.
May your fingers tease and probe all truths. It’s not the grain of sand, as we hold dear, but organisms wayward in their drift that, trapped, abrade the oyster’s flesh.
Errant breather smothered into loveliness, the pearl has its own song. If you drag it ashore
language loses meaning, so bring your ear to the ocean floor. There, neither fish nor son, eavesdrop.
Neither fish nor son yet, call sister sister and lie awhile by the echo. While there, bless the echo and learn
“Be a good steward of your gifts. Protect your time. Feed your inner life. Avoid too much noise. Read good books, have good sentences in your ears. Be by yourself as often as you can. Walk. Take the phone off the hook. Work regular hours.”
by Jane Kenyon
When I take the chilly tools from the shed’s darkness, I come out to a world made new by heat and light.
The snake basks and dozes on a large flat stone. It reared and scolded me for raking too close to its hole.
Like a mad red brain the involute rhubarb leaf thinks its way up through loam.
by Jane Kenyon
The dog and I push through the ring of dripping junipers to enter the open space high on the hill where I let him off the leash.
He vaults, snuffling, between tufts of moss; twigs snap beneath his weight; he rolls and rubs his jowls on the aromatic earth; his pink tongue lolls.
I look for sticks of proper heft to throw for him, while he sits, prim and earnest in his love, if it is love.
All night a soaking rain, and now the hill exhales relief, and the fragrance of warm earth. The sedges have grown an inch since yesterday, and ferns unfurled, and even if they try the lilacs by the barn can’t keep from opening today.
I longed for spring’s thousand tender greens, and the white-throated sparrow’s call that borders on rudeness. Do you know— since you went away I’ve done little but wait for you to come back to me.
When I was a little boy, mine was the kind of toy box that contained a gyroscope, tops of various sorts, a microscope, magnifying glasses, bottles and bug collectors and other assortments of things that were not strictly toys, they were ways to investigate the world. If I reflect on it, I spent the vast majority of my play time engaged in a study of physics. Isn’t that what a frisbee is ultimately, a tool for the study of physics? Also a hot wheel car set upon a track with no power other than the size of the height of the encyclopedias I would concoct, to get the best run and series of undulations, right down to the last book, so that the car could make it to the end of the track that I had created through the living room and down the long hall way. Climbing trees, is a study in physics, so is riding a bike, ping pong, baseball. The problem with electronics is a video game is not a study in physics, it is a study in communication. I preferred the world when it was dominated by the former.
I have had a hard time of late finding anything relevant to add to the poems I have been sharing. It is hard to watch the world be ill, seriously ill. I feel like we are watching our planet spin like a gyroscope, on its axis, like it always has and we have assumed it always will. Suddenly it has begun to wobble and without our collective imaginations to get it spinning at the proper speed again, its at risk of falling over, motionless and emotionless. Is emotion an extension of motion? Does that mean it is an extension of physics, our physical selves?
I spent some time this week in unbridled play, sheer silliness, like children chasing after a ball. There was no point to the 2 hours other than to have fun. There was nothing profound about it, yet the time was utterly transforming for the emotions of the group. Everyone came away energized, excited, closer. Why don’t we play with our friends more? The great tragedy of the COVID pandemic is not just the millions of lives lost, but also the life lost of the living. We started seeing our friends as something to avoid, something we had to protect ourselves from, rather than the cure to what ails us all. Netflix and books and social media can not replace playing with your friends. Electronics can not replace physics. Physics is what makes the world go round. I think we have to re-imagine our futures, like Stevenson. But this time, let’s imagine a future without toy soldiers, without any soldiers. Let’s get the planet spinning again at its proper speed, sustainably, enthusiastically.
FYI – a counterpane is a quilt or bedspread.
The Land of Counterpane
Robert Louis Stevenson – 1850-1894
When I was sick and lay a-bed,
I had two pillows at my head, And all my toys beside me lay To keep me happy all the day.
And sometimes for an hour or so I watched my leaden soldiers go, With different uniforms and drills, Among the bed-clothes, through the hills;
And sometimes sent my ships in fleets All up and down among the sheets; Or brought my trees and houses out, And planted cities all about.
I was the giant great and still That sits upon the pillow-hill, And sees before him, dale and plain, The pleasant land of counterpane.
Give me my rein, my syce! Give me my rein!
I have a need of it, an absolute need,
To climb upon the bounding back again
And curb the bad, mad gambols of my steed.
‘Tis strange we are thus parted—by no lust
Of mine, but rather blind, unwearied force
That worked upon the sinews of my horse,
And drove me from him, howling in the dust.
Now he is neither gentle, kind nor quiet,
And he strives (though vainly) to outleap his girth,
While right and left the armed hooves are hurled.
Oh Destrier! bethink thee that this riot
Shall, in the end, bring neither rest nor mirth….
Only the heaviest bit in all the world.
By Rudyard Kipling
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:
If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
if neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son
Life is some kind of loathsome hag who is forever threatening to turn beautiful.
Accidents of Birth
By William Meredith
Je vois les effroyables espaces de l’Univers qui m’enferment, et je me trouve attaché à un coin de cette vaste étendue, sans savoir pourquoi je suis plutôt en ce lieu qu’en un autre, ni pourquoi ce peu de temps qui m’est donné à vivre m’est assigné à ce point plutôt qu’à un autre de toute l’éternité qui m’a précédé, et de toute qui me suit.
—Pascal, Pensées sur la religion
The approach of a man’s life out of the past is history, and the approach of time out of the future is mystery. Their meeting is the present, and it is consciousness, the only time life is alive. The endless wonder of this meeting is what causes the mind, in its inward liberty of a frozen morning, to turn back and question and remember. The world is full of places. Why is it that I am here?
—Wendell Berry, The Long-Legged House
Spared by a car or airplane crash or
cured of malignancy, people look
around with new eyes at a newly
praiseworthy world, blinking eyes like these.
For I’ve been brought back again from the
fine silt, the mud where our atoms lie
down for long naps. And I’ve also been
pardoned miraculously for years
by the lava of chance which runs down
the world’s gullies, silting us back.
Here I am, brought back, set up, not yet
But it’s not this random
life only, throwing its sensual
astonishments upside down on
the bloody membranes behind my eyeballs,
not just me being here again, old
needer, looking for someone to need,
but you, up from the clay yourself,
as luck would have it, and inching
over the same little segment of earth-
ball, in the same little eon, to
meet in a room, alive in our skins,
and the whole galaxy gaping there
and the centuries whining like gnats—
you, to teach me to see it, to see
it with you, and to offer somebody
uncomprehending, impudent thanks.
An Orson Of The Muse
by George Meredith
Her son, albeit the Muse’s livery And measured courtly paces rouse his taunts, Naked and hairy in his savage haunts, To Nature only will he bend the knee; Spouting the founts of her distillery Like rough rock-sources; and his woes and wants Being Nature’s, civil limitation daunts His utterance never; the nymphs blush, not he. Him, when he blows of Earth, and Man, and Fate, The Muse will hearken to with graver ear Than many of her train can waken: him Would fain have taught what fruitful things and dear Must sink beneath the tidewaves, of their weight, If in no vessel built for sea they swim.
“Indeed poetry is bounded by silence on all sides, is almost defined by silence.
by Hayden Carruth
He isn’t quite a eunuch but that’s what he calls himself, this old two-beat codger on this spring afternoon picking up the winter’s crop of twigs and bark from the lawn to make it “look nicer” and to supply the house with kindling next winter for himself or his heirs, meanwhile coughing and gasping, cursing the pain in his back, thinking always of the days when each year after the run-off he was in the woods with the early trout lillies and violets and with his ax, saw, and canthook, doing a man’s work that has no connection with sex at all.
by Hayden Carruth
Dearest, I never knew such loving. There in that glass tower in the alien city, alone, we found what somewhere I had always known exists and must exist, this fervent care, this lust of tenderness. Two were aware how in hot seizure, bone pressed to bone and liquid flesh to flesh, each separate moan was pleasure, yes, but most in each other’s share. Companions and discoverers, equal and free, so deep in love we adventured and so far that we became perhaps more than we are, and now being home is hardship. Therefore are we diminished? No. We are of the world again but still augmented, more than we’ve ever been.
If I wrote in a sonnet form, I would be distorting. Or if I had some great new idea for line breaks and I used it in a poem, but it’s really not right for that poem, but I wanted it, that would be distorting.
By Sharon Olds
The doctor said to my father, “You asked me
to tell you when nothing more could be done.
That’s what I’m telling you now.” My father
sat quite still, as he always did,
especially not moving his eyes. I had thought
he would rave if he understood he would die,
wave his arms and cry out. He sat up,
thin, and clean, in his clean gown,
like a holy man. The doctor said,
“There are things we can do which might give you time,
but we cannot cure you.” My father said,
“Thank you.” And he sat, motionless, alone,
with the dignity of a foreign leader.
I sat beside him. This was my father.
He had known he was mortal. I had feared they would have to
tie him down. I had not remembered
he had always held still and kept quiet to bear things,
the liquor a way to keep still. I had not
known him. My father had dignity. At the
end of his life his life began
to wake in me.
I wonder what the divorce rate is among poets? In particular how many first marriages survive? No matter what a poet writes, whether autobiographical or not, there is a tendency for readers to think it is, particularly family members. It’s why poems written in the style of confessional poetry, in first person, can be difficult reading, there is little wiggle room for the reader, unless you view every poem as fiction, a product of imagination. Who is the greater exhibitionist; the painter or the nude, the poet or the reader, the artist or the gallery?
I find it interesting that Olds views the sonnet form as stifling and I find it liberating. I like structured verse because it provides a canopy under which I can get out of the bright sun and allows fiction to mingle with experience more readily into a nice rosy shade of pink reading glasses.
There are many sides to every failed marriage, particularly if there are children involved and the marriage went on and on, well into their young adulthood; then every member of the family will have their opinion on the matter. When a poet eulogizes their failed marriage in poetry, it takes on a whole new level of sentimentality, there becomes multiple deaths, the death of possibilities. I wrote a number of poems about my failed marriage. None of them were any good. I am not as talented a poet as Olds in that regard. Poetry of failure is not as inspiring as the poetry of discovery, but maybe it’s equally as important. The poetry of failure serves as a glue, to remind us all, that life is complicated. We all fail in our lifetimes, particularly in our marriages. Its just a matter of degrees. Olds’ poem below was a good reminder to myself, to not be so quick to burn the past without forethought as to the portent of the memories that go up in that rich smoke of the lives that were worth living long ago. Even those lives that ended in divorce.
by Sharon Olds
When I build a fire, I feel purposeful – proud I can unscrew the wing-nuts from off the rusted bolts, dis- assembling one of the things my ex left when he left right left. And laying its narrow, polished, maple bones across the fire, providing for updraft – good. Then by flame-light I see: I am burning his old easel. How can that be, after the hours and hours – all told, maybe weeks, a month of stillness – modelling for him, our first years together, smell of acrylic, stretch of treated canvas. I am burning his left-behind craft, he who was the first to turn our family, naked, into art. What if someone had told me, thirty years ago: If you give up, now, wanting to be an artist, he might love you all your life – just put your gifts into the heart’s domestic service. What would I have said? I didn’t even have an art, it would come to me from out of our family’s life – what could I have said?