It is not only the Romans who are gone. Belli, unhappy a century ago, Won from the world his fashionable stone. Where it stands now, he doesn’t even know. Across the Tiber, near Trastevere, His top hat teetered on his head with care, Brushed like a gentleman, he cannot see The latest Romans who succeed him there.
One of them bravely climbed his pedestal And sprayed a scarlet MERDA on his shawl. This afternoon, I pray his hidden grave Lies nameless somewhere in the hills, while rain Fusses and frets to rinse away the stain. Rain might erase when marble cannot save.
by James Wright
Praying down the gulley, Slowed by the rainy mire, I will discern, across the void, Two flies winding a fire, And a long thick leaf Hanging on another, And a leg of root and a leg Of bough twining together.
That will be she forever; Lightning bugs for eyes, That see no farther in the dark Than my own blind eyes; A limp leaf for a cheek, Cracking before it slips; Tendril and twig for ankle bones, And nothing at all for lips
When darkness hovers over earth, and day gives place to night, Then lovers see the Milky Way gleam mystically bright, And calling it the Way of Love they hail it with delight.
Joyce Kilmer, Summer of Love
by Joyce Kilmer
I think that I shall never see A poem lovely as a tree.
A tree whose hungry mouth is prest Against the sweet earth’s flowing breast;
A tree that looks at God all day, And lifts her leafy arms to pray;
A tree that may in summer wear A nest of robins in her hair;
Upon whose bosom snow has lain; Who intimately lives with rain.
Poems are made by fools like me, But only God can make a tree.
In Minnesota, May is the month of trees even more so than the splendor of the fall. Minnesotan’s come out of a long winter eager for the warmth of spring. The bare and brown trees tease us all April long, with hints of green and growing things. But it isn’t until May that the canopy is filled with as many colors of green as the mind’s eye can imagine. Then, about the middle of the month, crab apples and lilacs fill our neighborhoods with their delights. By Memorial day their blossoms will be gone, their sweet smells a reminder to slow down, close your eyes and breath.
The beauty of this year’s greenness got me thinking about poems about trees. It’s what lead me to James Emanuel’s poem A Fool for Evergreen. Of course the most famous poem about trees is Joyce Kilmer’s Trees. I asked a good friend of mine who was in her 90’s at the time a few years back; “what are some of your favorite poems?” The first one she recited from memory was I think that I shall never see…. I was surprised. It feels like such a simple poem for her sophisticated and educated pallet. I hate to say I had even found Kilmer’s Trees a bit cliche prior to writing this entry. But of course I hadn’t realized Kilmer died in World War I as a young soldier, on a brave and fool hardy mission, in which lives were shed needlessly, as easily as petals fall from the trees. I had not stopped to listen to her reverence for the poem through her eyes until today.
Kilmer entered the army as a statistician for the New York National Guard in the summer of 1917, shortly after the death of his daughter Rose and the birth of his son. He left his wife and newborn son with visions of writing a book of prose and poetry based on his wartime experiences. The reality of being a soldier drained him of his creative energy and he wrote little during the final 9 months of his life. He arrived in France in November 1917 and like so many young men of that war, who thought there was glory to be found, found something else was waiting. By spring of 1918 he was volunteering for ever more dangerous assignments putting him in harms way at the front lines, possibly out of survivor’s guilt. On July 30, 1918 he was shot and killed while as an advance scout for the 165th Infantry Regiment in an open field, at the crest of a small hill, trying to identify the precise location of a nest of German machine guns that were raining down death upon his comrades.
I didn’t think about it until now, my friend who was born in the early 1920’s, that in her grade school years the healing from World War I had barely begun for the families scarred by its tragedies. She memorized Kilmer’s poem in grade school a decade after Kilmer’s death, probably from a lesson plan taught by a young female teacher; Kilmer’s poem both a way to honor those that they had known who had died in the war and as a primer for young students for a life long love of literature. The poem is sometimes looked down in the halls of literary criticism for its simplicity, an object that is not valid in my mind. Simple poems, in my opinion, are the foundation of literature that offer a foot path into the vault of our adult imaginations.
Do grade school children memorize poetry anymore? What poems will become their primers for healing for the dissonance of the past couple of years? Are the poems that this generation memorizes in childhood similar or different than the past? What literature is lurking beneath the beats of hip hop and Tik Tok, countless young people absorbing its artistic energy, without the rest of us even aware? A hundred years from now, what poems will people share with each other from this decade? Do you have a poem that has touched your heart in a different way these past two years that you will carry with you from here forward in a different light, a perfect light about you? In what form did that poem come to you? You may not even realize how it has buried itself under your skin until that day you find yourself saying it out loud to a friend….
by Joyce Kilmer
Tired clerks, pale girls, street cleaners, business men, Boys, priests and harlots, drunkards, students, thieves, Each one the pleasant outer sunshine leaves; They mingle in this stifling, loud-wheeled pen. The gate clangs to—we stir—we sway—and then We thunder through the dark. The long train weaves Its gloomy way. At last above the eaves We see awhile God’s day, then night again.
Hurled through the dark—day at Manhattan Street, The rest all night. That is my life, it seems. Through sunless ways go my reluctant feet. The sunlight comes in transitory gleams. And yet the darkness makes the light more sweet, The perfect light about me—in my dreams.
The idiot goes round and around
With his brother in a bumping car
At the fair. The famous idiot
Smile hangs over the car’s edge,
Illuminating nothing. This is mankind
Being taken for a ride by a rich
Relation. The responses are fixed:
Bump, smile; bump, smile. And the current
Is generated by the smooth flow
Of the shillings. This is an orchestra
Of steel with the constant percussion
Of laughter. But where he should be laughing
Too, his features are split open, and look!
Out of the cracks come warm, human tears.
By R. S. Thomas
I thought, you see, that on some still night,
When stars were shrill over his farm,
And he and I kept ourselves warm
By an old fire, whose bars were bright
With real heat, the truth might ripen
Between us naturally as the fruit
Of his wild hedges, or as the roots,
Swedes and mangolds, he grew then.
No luck; the thoughts hopefully sown
On such evenings never could break
The mind’s crust. Keeping my own
Company now. I have forsaken
All but his poor basement of bone,
Where the one dry flame is awake.
“Love make us poets, and the approach of death should make us philosophers.”
by Mark Jarman
After the praying, after the hymn-singing, After the sermon’s trenchant commentary On the world’s ills, which make ours secondary, After communion, after the hand wringing, And after peace descends upon us, bringing Our eyes up to regard the sanctuary And how the light swords through it, and how, scary In their sheer numbers, motes of dust ride, clinging— There is, as doctors say about some pain, Discomfort knowing that despite your prayers, Your listening and rejoicing, your small part In this communal stab at coming clean, There is one stubborn remnant of your cares Intact. There is still murder in your heart.
Sweet Are The Days
by George Santayana
Sweet are the days we wander with no hope Along life’s labyrinthine trodden way, With no impatience at the steep’s delay, Nor sorrow at the swift-descended slope. Why this inane curiosity to grope In the dim dust for gems’ unmeaning ray? Why this proud piety, that dares to pray For a world wider than the heaven’s cope?
Farewell, my burden! No more will I bear The foolish load of my fond faith’s despair, But trip the idle race with careless feet. The crown of olive let another wear; It is my crown to mock the runner’s heat With gentle wonder and with laughter sweet.
“Only the curious have, if they live, a tale worth telling at all.”
by John Updike
And another regrettable thing about death is the ceasing of your own brand of magic, which took a whole life to develop and market- the quips, the witticisms, the slant adjusted to a few, those loved ones nearest the lip of the stage, their soft faces blanched in the footlight glow, their laughter close to tears, their tears confused with their diamond earrings, their warm pooled breath in and out with your heartbeat, their response and your performance twinned. The jokes over the phone. The memories packed in the rapid-access file. The whole act. Who will do it again? That’s it: no one; imitators and descendants aren’t the same.
Poem Without Ends
by Alastair Reid
One cannot take the beginning out of the air saying ‘It is the time: the hour is here’. The process is continuous as wind, the bird observed, not rising, but in flight, unrealised, in motion of the mind.
The end of everything is similar, never actually happening, but always over. The agony, the bent head, only tell that already in the heart the innocent evening is thick with the ferment of farewell.
Nothing is so beautiful as spring– When weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush; Thrush’s eggs look little low heavens, and thrush Through the echoing timber does so rinse and wring The ear, it strikes like lightnings to hear him sing; The glassy pear tree leaves and blooms, they brush The descending blue; that blue is all in a rush With richness; the racing lambs too have fair their fling.
What is all this juice and all this joy? A strain of the earth’s sweet being in the beginning In Eden garden.–Have, get, before it cloy, Before it cloud, Christ, lord, and sour with sinning, Innocent mind and Mayday in girl and boy, Most, O maid’s child, thy choice and worthy the winning.
Spring has sprung in Minnesota and with it the smells and sounds and sights of green and growing things. We had a gentle rain this week and grass overnight turned emerald green. On most lakes the ice is out and our world is turning phases, from solid to liquid. I am eager to get some dirt under my finger nails, rake up the detritus of winter and allow the recent rains to soak in and get the spring flowers growing.
There have been many poets who have used the sonnet form as a spiritual medium, to let their minds wander into the sublime, beyond the boundaries of human love and into the infinite. Both Donne and Hopkins used their poetry as testaments to God, but in doing so reaffirmed their very human relationship with nature and in their eyes its manifestation God’s love in nurturing all life on earth. In this way, Christianity and Buddhism share some common themes, in that we are all manifestations of God’s (Buddha’s) consciousness and yet, as Donne reminds us, it is in the forgetting, at least in the forgetting of the worst of ourselves, that we are best remembered.
I make the most of all that comes and the least of all that goes.
by Sara Teasdale
The roofs are shining from the rain. The sparrows tritter as they fly, And with a windy April grace The little clouds go by.
Yet the back-yards are bare and brown With only one unchanging tree– I could not be so sure of Spring Save that it sings in me.
Sara Teasdale was born in St. Louis into a wealthy family. As a young woman she spent time in Chicago’s literary circles, including a friendship with Harriet Monroe through whom she met and dated the poet Vachel Lindsay. Teasdale rejected Lindsay’s marriage proposals, an itinerant poet whom may have lacked the income to be a suitable partner in her eyes, but may have been a better match intellectually. Instead she married Ernst Filsinger in 1914 and moved to New York City. Teasdale published several collections of classical poetry and edited several other anthologies. Though her work is often overlooked today, she was popular with both critics and readers in her day. Following her divorce in 1929, her health declined rapidly. Teasdale became an invalid and died following a bout with pneumonia by an overdose of barbiturates.
There is a sadness that runs through much of Teasdale’s poetry, as if life just didn’t quite measure up to her hopes and dreams. Its hard to know if it was maniac depression or something darker that had blotted out her joy, but Teasdale seemed to run out of steam as the economic depression of the 1930’s took hold and the life of privilege and wealth that she had enjoyed started to feel out of reach. In her bob hair cut, and beautiful smile, it would be interesting to know the back story to the last two lines of the sonnet below, but from my perspective the beauty in her words will never be dull.
by Sara Teasdale
I saw a ship sail forth at evening time; Her prow was gilded by the western fire, And all her rigging one vast golden lyre, For winds to play on to the ocean’s rhyme Of wave on wave forever singing low. She floated on a web of burnished gold, And in such light as praying men behold Cling round a vision, were her sails aglow. I saw her come again when dawn was grey, Her wonder faded and her splendor dead — ‘ She whom I loved once had upon her way A light most like the sunset. Now ’tis sped. And this is saddest — what seemed wondrous fair Are now but straight pale lips, and dull gold hair.
Desert heat, high clouds, and sky the color of lapis. On this journey, anything seems possible, so we stop by an ancient cottonwood to kiss. The beauty trembles, doesn’t say a word, just watches me, so open. Small birds fly by, flock in the shady tree above us. What settles in her heart? What congeals? Hope? Despair? Far off, the river churns in its sandy banks, swallows veer, turn in fiery air. Will these kisses seal her to me? I her lover, she my wife? Is all of this a dream, my whole life?
For the wanderers among us, the self restraint of not traveling during the past year has been difficult. Two years ago I embarked on a mad journey with my partner, packing enough activities for 3 vacations into 11 days, driving more miles than is therapeutic, hiking, skiing, rock hounding while car camping across Colorado and Utah the first week of April. As slightly crazy as it was, I would do it again in a heartbeat with only one change; add another week onto the trip to slow the pace down of the miles covered. The incredible beauty of Utah and the diverse nature of its National Parks and public lands make it truly one of the great wonders and wanders of the United States.
I am fearful that post pandemic vacations will become even more difficult, not less. I had not taken a full week off prior to 2018 in over 10 years. The reason: I return to a mountain of work that it makes it a worry while away. The pre-pandemic work pace was bad enough that long weekends – leave on a Friday return on Tuesday – felt doable, because I was never gone for an entire week. But that was before Teams or Zoom calls filled up every minute of every day. This idea that we have created a mobile work force that can work from anywhere is a fallacy. We have given permission to now think everyone is available on-demand at anytime and it is ruining workplace quality of life and undermining human interactions. It is exhausting to be on remote calls hour after hour, day after day. It sucks the life right out of me. I find that things we used to solve over lunch or an impromptu 5 minute discussion in someone’s office now turn into 30 or 60 minute calls. We have become less efficient to the god of technology, not more efficient. The problem is I seem to be in the minority of hating the state of this virtual insanity. So the slow decent into digital existence continues unabated. I fear, it is Dante’s new rings of hell. It’s why we need to clear our lungs once in a while and get out and see the world. Gould’s sonnets are a splash of Utah sunshine on the high desert vista. Sacred. Sacred. Sacred. Beautiful words to fit the beauty of the West.
Zion National Park April 2018.
Six Sonnets: Crossing the West
by Janice Gould
4 Sacred. Sacred. Sacred. Sacred. (Speak in a whisper.) We slip into this space half cognizant. The land is very large indeed: bones of the earth worn down, though she is a living thing. See how she exposes her grace? Antelopes graze on the far plain—their high, white tails—the red soil throbs its slow heartbeat, and the blue sky clears so smartly, perfectly, like radiance. Are the ancestors near? What can we know? We decide to wander around this prairie, mistaken for Utes, buy commodities in little towns.
They’re kindly here, to let us linger so late, Long after the shutters are up. A waiter glides from the kitchen with a plate Of stew, or some thick soup,
And settles himself at the next table but one. We know, you and I, that it’s over, That something or other has come between Us, whatever we are, or were.
The waiter swabs his plate with bread And drains what’s left of his wine, Then rearranges, one by one, The knife, the fork, the spoon, the napkin, The table itself, the chair he’s simply borrowed, And smiles, and bows to his own absence.