In The Midden Of My Mind

Climbing-Trees

“Music, at its essence, is what gives us memories.  And the longer a song has existed in our lives, the more memories we have of it.”

Stevie Wonder

Motown Cross

(Excerpt – Sonnet #3 in the crown of sonnets)

by Patricia Smith

Silk where his throat should be, and growling grace,
Little Stevie made us wonder why
we even needed sight. His rhythm eye
could see us click our hips and swerve in place
whenever he cut loose. Ooh, we’d unlace
our Converse All-Stars. Yeah, we wondered why
we couldn’t get down without our shoes, we’d try
and dance and keep up with his funky pace
of hiss and howl and hum, and then he’d slow
to twist our hearts until he heard them crack,
ignoring what was leaking from the seams.
The rockin’ blind boy couldn’t help but show
us light. We bellowed every soulful track
from open window, ’neath the door—pipe dreams.

If you want to check out Smith’s entire crown of sonnets Motown Cross published in Rattle in 2010, check out the link or video below.

 


The best known crown of sonnets is John Donne’s La Corona that begins, “Deign at my hands the crown of prayer and praise.”   It sets the standard by which all others are measured.  If you are not familiar with a crown of sonnets or sonnet sequence, it is a poem containing anywhere from seven, eleven or thirteen sonnets, written around a theme.  Modern sonnet sequences are not always in rhyme and do not necessarily follow the supposed “rules” of a crown of sonnet, but I am impressed that Patricia Smith went old school in her poem Motown Cross and followed the structure of Donne, in which the first line of the first sonnet is the last line of the last sonnet, the last line of the first sonnet is the first line of the second sonnet, and so forth with successive sonnets until the end.  The challenge in this structure is figuring out a rhyming sequence that you can continue from the end of one sonnet to the next and not have repetition and still carry the narrative forward. It provides a bigger canvas in which to work in the sonnet structure but that larger size carries with it it’s own unique set of challenges.

Like Smith, when I sat down and wrote a crown of sonnets, I looked sentimentally to the past.  She focused on music that shaped her, I focused on memories of growing up.   The entire sonnet sequence, In the Midden of My Mind, started with the word midden.  I came across it and it’s association with storage cupboards and sailing ships immediately conjured thoughts about climbing trees as a child, a place of mystery and serenity that still exists in my memory. I grew up in the 1960’s in a suburban landscape on a dead end street with a forest of mature trees at my door step  to explore and climb.  I had my favorites that I knew the route that I could climb to the very top and peer out over the entire world and hide from my sisters and my mom if I chose. I spent many happy summer and fall afternoons climbing trees. The act of climbing a combination of strategy, knowledge of trees,  athleticism, experience, upper arm strength and some courage.   I never fell. I have visceral memories of being at the top of swaying trees and seeing a perspective of the world that looked completely different than being on the ground.

Stevie Wonder’s album, Songs in the Key of Life was one of the very first albums I ever purchased.  It came out when I was thirteen and I listened to it over and over as a teenager.  Patricia Smith, a black woman from inner city Detroit and me a white man who grew up in suburbs of St. Paul, couldn’t in some ways be more different in our experiences, but we both danced to Stevie Wonder in our converse All Stars and we both somehow gravitated to writing a crown of sonnets to capture the mood and rhythms of our past. It took me more than six months to write In the Midden of My Mind. There were many starts and stops along the way, trying to maintain a consistent voice throughout and articulate something genuine.  In the end, I let the rhyme and sentiment both have the upper hand and though it is not one of the best things I have ever written, it has held up over the test of time in that I don’t cringe when I read it.   It still says what I want it to say. Nostalgia does not always translate well to others, our own sentimental journeys best kept as personal, but it is a way to share our common experience that connects us in ways that remind us that the human condition has more similarities that bind us together than differences that divide.


In The Midden of My Mind

By T. A. Fry

In the midden of my mind, it lies
Unbidden: the flagship of my boyhood home.
A relic hidden under bluest skies.
Where childhood’s ghosts are free to roam.
Danger beckoned me to its lofty realm
Bound by vistas from the tallest tree.
High in oaks and elm, I was at the helm
Of  tall ships sailing effortlessly.

Oh, to climb into youth’s panoply,

The dappled greens of windy murmur.
The swaying solitude of the canopy,
Above the scrambling of terra firma.
Though nostalgia’s pastel does not grow dreary,
The past’s colors blend until I’m leery.

 

The past’s colors blend until I’m leery.
It bends, then fades to form a rosy veil.
What once was real becomes more a theory,
In retelling tales that time assails.
Those days when marbles were like Midas gold,
Jewels handed down to daughters and sons.
When aggies, clears, cat-eyes and shooters rolled
To clack, smack and crack, nothing less was fun.

In long grass we played, our days unbroken.

While wildflowers buzzed with a winged milieu.
A place where kindness, if it went unspoken,
Was felt in the warmth to see us through.
A timeless landscape that shall never lapse.
When all the marbles were within my grasp.

 


When all the marbles were within my grasp.
Some gained, some lost, but all in fair play.
Until one day I turned to find the hasp
of my chest broken and all in disarray.
Death’s screech hailed me beneath a tire
Revealing the flash by which souls burn.
Chance disrobed the vagary of death’s attire
That clothes the nakedness from which we learn.

There lay crumbled before me what had been

An electric grey kitten who filled my days
With boundless play and purry naps, but in
A dash, his companionship was torn away.
Death’s design is a bloody valentine.
Is it childish to wish to turn back time?

 

Is it childish to wish to turn back time?
Life’s an endless game between gain and loss.
Death picks breath’s pocket. Yet there’s no crime.
For pure gold is smelt alongside the dross.
Are words fit crucibles for our stores?
No matter what preciousness is poured.
The past sounds hollow, when its essence roared.
Or cold metallic, when by warmth adorned.

My first real kiss from a neighbor girl.
Her lips wet and sweet, like an apple core.
Shining sun bronzed hair, not a hint of curl,
With gentle fondness, it was a thrill.
Is it any wonder I ponder still?
Soft fingers alighting on emerging will.

 

Soft fingers alighting on emerging will.
Awakened chords to songs I’d yet to sing.
Her hazel eyes afire with new found skills.
Planted bouquets of flowers I’d yet to bring.
My garden grew more bold and lush.  By what
Bewitching alchemy does love distill?
Young men from boys and with it cut
The last apron string that holds them still.

In the midden of my mind is always lit,

A candle kindled by my Mother’s grace.
It’s held in a stanchion, a sturdy kit,
Iron my father forged along its base.
By loving hands honor is embraced.
In trusting arms confidence is encased.

 

In trusting arms confidence is encased
Despite the clumsy sack-race of boys to men.
Bumbling, stumbling – ignorance is erased.
Only at the tape to hear it’s jeers again.
I drank the cold brew from which poise streams. 
And ate the fruit that falls from laughter’s tree.
I ventured far beyond green childish dreams,
With ungainly strength to go forth and be.

I unearthed proud mystery in this world.

In dominion o’er my body and my mind. 
I watched sun and moon around me swirl
And mulled how tempest winds unwind.
I made few inroads into golden plains.
But not all my wandering was in vain.

 

 

Not all my wandering was in vain.
I said “I do” before those hazel eyes,
Declared “I do” twice more as children came.
In praise of Gods that be with grateful cries.
As victory and failure filled my sail.
And first kisses gave way to wayward sighs.
Through it all I heard love’s warbling wail.
Though time forgets all the whats and whys.

As epitaphs replaced old love songs sung.

Despite all that’s happened love prevailed.
White hair the vanguard of immortal young
Who listen politely to our wistful tale.
For as I look back with old thankful eyes,
There, in the midden of my mind it lies.

The Worst To Please Is A Carpenter

IMG_6520
Roan, Norway

Mountain Life

by Henrik Ibsen

IN summer dusk the valley lies
With far-flung shadow veil;
A cloud-sea laps the precipice
Before the evening gale:

The welter of the cloud-waves grey
Cuts off from keenest sight
The glacier, looking out by day
O’er all the district, far away,
And crowned with golden light.

But o’er the smouldering cloud-wrack’s flow,
Where gold and amber kiss,
Stands up the archipelago,
home of shining peace.

The mountain eagle seems to sail
A ship far seen at even;
And over all a serried pale
Of peaks, like giants ranked in mail,
Fronts westward threatening heaven.

But look, a steading nestles, close
Beneath the ice-fields bound,
Where purple cliffs and glittering snows
The quiet home surround.

Here place and people seem to be
A world apart, alone;
— Cut off from men by spate and scree
It has a heaven more broad, more free,
A sunshine all its own.

Look: mute the saeter-maiden stays,
Half shadow, half aflame;
The deep, still vision of her gaze
Was never word to name.

She names it not herself, nor knows
What goal my be its will;
While cow-bells chime and alp-horn blows
It bears her where the sunset glows,
Or, maybe, further still.

Too brief, thy life on highland wolds
Where close the glaciers jut;
Too soon the snowstorm’s cloak enfolds
Stone byre and pine-log hut.

Then wilt thou ply with hearth ablaze
The winter’s well-worn tasks
— But spin thy wool with cheerful face:
One sunset in the mountain pays
For all their winter asks.


I have spent the past week in Roan, Norway, a rural area north of Trondheim, that is a combination of rocky highlands dotted with small dairy farms in the river bottoms.   The beauty of Norway is hard to put into words, hiking in nearly pristine wilderness, the wild blue berries and mountain berries in full splendor this week among the moss and ferns in pine forests. The waters clear and blue, making there way into the fjords, I had the good fortune to be invited to spend some time at a friends, friend cabin that provided precious silence, multiple days with only the sounds of nature except for one or two airplanes over the course of several days. That experience of not being able to hear any man-made noise is a centering, sacred experience, bringing me back to something more basic that calls me to simplify my life.  Having spent several marvelous days in new and old Norwegian mountain cabins, my love of small houses has been rekindled and the urge to build one someplace in Minnesota is strong.

file-31

I used this opportunity while in Norway to investigate the legacy of Norway’s literature. Rich as it is with playwrights, (Ibsen) and novelists and poetry (Olav Hauge and Welhaven), outside of Welhaven’s sonnet cycle called Norges Daemring I found English translations of Norwegian poetry a bit slim pickings on the internet.  It may well be that I have not figured out the right search terms or it could be Norwegian poets are unconcerned with English translations and prefer to let people read their work in Norwegian.

Hauge’s work in English has a bit of similarity to William Carlos Williams with a similar dry sense of humor that runs through it.  Everyone in rural Norway it seems is a carpenter as it were, with self made cabins, barns and even houses more the norm than the exception.   As much as I enjoyed the beauty of Norway, I am eager to get home.  The inability to communicate effectively has made me homesick for Minnesota and the beauty of the English language.   Brah!


Poem

by Olav H. Hauge
Translated by Robert Hedin

If you can make a poem
a farmer finds useful,
you should be happy.
A blacksmith you can never figure out.
The worst to please is a carpenter.

While Lingering Whispers Deepen

Maramag
Fernando Maramag

Moonlight on Manila Bay

By Fernando M. Maramag (1893 – 1936)

A light, serene, ethereal glory rests
Its beams effulgent on each crestling wave;
The silver touches of the moonlight wave
The deep bare bosom that the breeze molests;
While lingering whispers deepen as the wavy crests
Roll with weird rhythm, now gay, now gently grave;
And floods of lambent light appear the sea to pave-
All cast a spell that heeds not time‘s behests.

Not always such the scene; the din of fight
Has swelled the murmur of the peaceful air;
Here East and West have oft displayed their might;
Dark battle clouds have dimmed this scene so fair;
Here bold Olympia, one historic night,
Presaging freedom, claimed a people‘s care.


Marmag’s sonnet is written as a sentimental homage to a simpler time before the Philippine’s became a pawn in the imperial conquests of Japan and the United States.  Manila Bay is an important geographical military asset for the country which hoped to control the Pacific ocean.

I harkened at a recent MPR story about the return of a church bell which the United States Navy had taken as a spoil of war in which Maramag’s sonnet is set.  The Balangiga town’s church bells were taken as war trophies during the 1899-1902 Philippine-American War and had languished in relative obscurity in an army warehouse.  But the Philippine town and the country had not forgotten about them and through an act of contrition and forgiveness the bells were returned after 117 years so that they could be restored to the bell towers in which they belonged, to herald hope that someday we might find ways to negotiate in ways that don’t require domination and subjugation as the starting point but rather equanimity, with the mutual goal of creating the best outcomes for a complex world.


To the Man I Married
Angela Manalang-Gloria

I
You are my earth and all the earth implies:
The gravity that ballasts me in space,
The air I breathe, the land that stills my cries
For food and shelter against devouring days.
You are the earth whose orbit marks my way
And sets my north and south, my east and west,
You are the final, elemented clay
The driven heart must turn to for its rest.

If in your arms that hold me now so near
I lift my keening thoughts to Helicon
As trees long rooted to the earth uprear
Their quickening leaves and flowers to the sun,
You who are earth, O never doubt that I
Need you no less because I need the sky!

II
I can not love you with a love
That outcompares the boundless sea,
For that were false, as no such love
And no such ocean can ever be.

But I can love you with a love
As finite as the wave that dies
And dying holds from crest to crest
The blue of everlasting skies.

If It’s Darkness We’re Having, Let it Be Extravagant

tree
Christmas tree carcass waiting for the garbage man.

Taking Down The Tree

by Jane Kenyon

“Give me some light!” cries Hamlet’s
uncle midway through the murder
of Gonzago. “Light! Light!” cry scattering
courtesans. Here, as in Denmark,
it’s dark at four, and even the moon
shines with only half a heart.

The ornaments go down into the box:
the silver spaniel, My Darling
on its collar, from Mother’s childhood
in Illinois; the balsa jumping jack
my brother and I fought over,
pulling limb from limb. Mother
drew it together again with thread
while I watched, feeling depraved
at the age of ten.

With something more than caution
I handle them, and the lights, with their
tin star-shaped reflectors, brought along
from house to house, their pasteboard
toy suitcases increasingly flimsy.
Tick, tick, the desiccated needles drop.

By suppertime all that remains is the scent
of balsam fir. If it’s darkness
we’re having, let it be extravagant.


What a difference there is between putting up the tree and taking it down.  In my experience, we usher in the grand festival of the Christmas season with the annual family ceremony of selecting, transporting and then decorating the Christmas tree, eggnog in hand, Christmas carols playing on Spotify.  Then several weeks later, generally only one person finds themselves with the solitary task of taking the ornaments off, boxing them up and kicking the tree to the curb like an ugly sweater some relative gave you on Christmas Day.

A much more pleasurable final resting place for your Christmas tree, if you are fortunate enough to live in a place where you can have a fire in your back yard, is to put your tree out in the burn pit and let it get good and dry to become a natural inferno for next year’s first bonfire in the spring. That’s a sure-fire one match fire.  It’s also a reminder why our great grandparents before electricity took their lives in their own hands in lighting candles on the Christmas tree.  No wonder prohibition was passed in the 1920s!

My Mother always waited until 12th night to take down her Christmas tree. The twelve days of Christmas begins on Christmas day and ends on January 5. I like the term Christmastide to describe this period, as it creates an image of being swept away by the spirit of good tidings.

This year I am awash in pears, having been gifted several boxes of fruit. Trying to eat them all up before twelfth night is my challenge as pears go from perfect to putrid in about 3 days. I am making pear tatin, pear-blue cheese salad, pear sauce and would you care for a pear if I left it outside your door as I am playing ding dong ditch with my neighbors with pears in about 3 days. Please, next year, send me oranges.  At least I can turn them into screwdrivers on New Years day.


Sonnet

by Jane Tyson Clement (1917 – 2000)

Seeking the fact that lies behind the flower
the soul will break its own mortality;
searching the time that lies beyond the hour
the soul will yield its blind serenity;
that is but briefly to be ill at ease
and then forever to be tranquil-eyed,
stirring the wrath of temporal deities
who hurl pale lightning when they are defied.
The least fine sheaf of millet will repay
the soul’s slow contemplation, and the still
ages of starlight between day and day;
the climb is steep to mount a sudden hill;
but if man, fearless, follows stars, he’ll find –
lo, he is more than stars, and more than mind.


“Taking Down the Tree” by Jane Kenyon from Collected Poems. Copyright © 2005.  Graywolf Press, http://www.graywolfpress.org.