In The Spirit Level

Elizabeth Bishop and Robert Lowell

“The armored cars of dreams, contrived to let us do so many a dangerous thing.”

― Elizabeth Bishop

The Armadillo

by Elizabeth Bishop   (1911-1979)

 

For Robert Lowell

This is the time of year
when almost every night
the frail, illegal fire balloons appear.
Climbing the mountain height,

rising toward a saint
still honored in these parts,
the paper chambers flush and fill with light
that comes and goes, like hearts.

Once up against the sky it’s hard
to tell them from the stars—
planets, that is—the tinted ones:
Venus going down, or Mars,

or the pale green one. With a wind,
they flare and falter, wobble and toss;
but if it’s still they steer between
the kite sticks of the Southern Cross,

receding, dwindling, solemnly
and steadily forsaking us,
or, in the downdraft from a peak,
suddenly turning dangerous.

Last night another big one fell.
It splattered like an egg of fire
against the cliff behind the house.
The flame ran down. We saw the pair

of owls who nest there flying up
and up, their whirling black-and-white
stained bright pink underneath, until
they shrieked up out of sight.

The ancient owls’ nest must have burned.
Hastily, all alone,
a glistening armadillo left the scene,
rose-flecked, head down, tail down,

and then a baby rabbit jumped out,
short-eared, to our surprise.
So soft!—a handful of intangible ash
with fixed, ignited eyes.

Too pretty, dreamlike mimicry!
O falling fire and piercing cry
and panic, and a weak mailed fist
clenched ignorant against the sky!


Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop’s friendship spanned from 1947 until the end of Lowell’s life in 1977.  They met when Lowell, as part of his appointment with the Library of Congress, was tasked with expanding its collection from just manuscripts and books to include recordings of poets reading their work.  He immediately reached out to Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, Randell Jarrell along with many others, and included an invitation to Elizabeth Bishop who had recently published North and South, which Lowell had written a positive review.   They soon became fast friends. 

In the summer of 1948, with fresh divorce decree in hand, Lowell went with his girl friend at the time, Carly Dawson to spend the summer in Maine to visit Elizabeth Bishop.  Dawson, already twice divorced, soon faded on Lowell’s odd behavior and intensity and dumped him early on in the visit when Lowell immediately set his fascination upon Bishop shortly after their arrival.  Lowell’s and Bishop’s fascination with each other would continue for the next three decades.   It didn’t take long that summer for Lowell to profess his love for her and told his friends and even his family he was going to marry her.  Bishop never took his exclamations of matrimony seriously and claims the two of them never slept together, though there was an intimacy in their intellectual connection that lasted far beyond what a likely physical romance would have lasted, given Lowell’s history in that regard.  

By fall of 1948, with his position completed at the Library of Congress, Lowell headed to Yaddo, an arts commune near Saratoga, New York that still exists today.   It is an eclectic place, then and now, that gives artists in residence a place to work and interact with other artists across a wide range of disciplines.  Upon arrival he reconnected with Elizabeth Hardwick whom he had met before, a novelist and book reviewer, who was a sharp and thorny critic, and also apparently a font of juicy rumors about Alan Tate’s private life.  In short, Hardwick was exactly the kind of intellectual challenge Lowell admired and it took no time for him to switch his gaze from one Elizabeth to another, Bishop to Hardwick.  

Bishop is quoted as saying, “I never wanted to marry Robert Lowell, but I would have loved to have his baby.”  I think it was a way of keeping her sexual history private.  Bishop was a lesbian at a time that it was not easy to be out and open about being a lesbian.   Bishop, in contrast to Berryman and Lowell who were celebrated for evolving confessional poetry, was very deliberate in her writing to separate her personal life from her poetry in all but its metaphors.  Bishop traveled the world, enjoyed the freedom that a single life affords a woman of financial means; writing, painting and enjoying her journey. 

I find it intriguing that Bishop’s final published poem, published 3 weeks after her death in the New Yorker is titled Sonnet.  She had published another Sonnet in 1928 that I have shared in an earlier Fourteenlines, but to my knowledge sonnets were not her forte.  Is the title and its 14 lines a way to reach out to the past to departed friends, Lowell in particular, who had embraced 14 lines as sufficient space to encompass a lifetime?  The poem is remarkable in its simplicity and imagery.  I too have often been fascinated by the rainbows that live in the edges of beveled mirrors and the tiny bubble that exists in all of our spirit levels, fragile, yet permanent, resetting us on the level if we choose to course correct. 

 


Sonnet

by Elizabeth Bishop

Caught — the bubble
in the spirit level,
a creature divided;
and the compass needle
wobbling and wavering,
undecided.
Freed — the broken
thermometer’s mercury
running away;
and the rainbow-bird
from the narrow bevel
of the empty mirror,
flying wherever
it feels like, gay!

My Clumsiness Each Time I Try To Dance

Delmore Schwartz (1913-1966)

“Me miserable! Which way shall I fly
Infinite wrath and infinite despair?
Which way I fly is hell; myself am hell;
And in the lowest deep a lower deep,
Still threat’ning to devour me, opens wide,
To which the hell I suffer seems a heaven.”

John Milton – Paradise Lost

Rome

By Joachim du Bellay
Translated by Ezra Pound 
 

O thou newcomer who seek’st Rome in Rome
And find’st in Rome no thing thou canst call Roman;
Arches worn old and palaces made common
Rome’s name alone within these walls keeps home.

Behold how pride and ruin can befall
One who hath set the whole world ’neath her laws,
All-conquering, now conquered, because
She is Time’s prey, and Time conquereth all.

Rome that art Rome’s one sole last monument,
Rome that alone hast conquered Rome the town,
Tiber alone, transient and seaward bent,

Remains of Rome. O world, thou unconstant mime!
That which stands firm in thee Time batters down,
And that which fleeteth doth outrun swift Time

Nouveau venu, qui cherches Rome en Rome
Et rien de Rome en Rome n’aperçois,
Ces vieux palais, ces vieux arcs que tu vois
Et ces vieux murs, c’est ce que Rome on nomme.

Vois quel orgueil, quelle ruine et comme
Celle qui mit le monde sous ses lois
Pour dompter tout, se dompta quelquefois
Et devint proie au temps, qui tout consomme.

Rome de Rome est le seul monument,
Et Rome Rome a vaincu seulement.
Le Tibre seul, qui vers la mer s’enfuit,

Reste de Rome. O mondaine inconstance !
Ce qui est ferme est par le temps détruit
Et ce qui fuit, au temps fait résistance.


Despite Lowell’s embrace of the true southern hospitality showed him by Tate, Warren and Ransom, Lowell was a Bostonian through and through. Though even he was a bit taken aback by the privileged life he grew up in and retained as an adult through his family’s Bostonian wealth, status and power, he never hesitated to embrace the safety net it provided.   There are the penniless loonies, like Pound, who get by in part through their eccentricity.  And then there are the wealthy eccentrics, who are tolerated because they have fuck you walking around money.   They can be as crazy as they want, and their community will accept it, because there is an unspoken bond among families, schools and businesses that are so intertwined in their community, that they have mutually decided its better to accept a few nut bars of their own choosing, as long as they can pay their bar tab and afford expensive psychiatrists and luxury mental hospitals in times of recovery when substance abuse gets out of control.  The field of psychiatry and the big business of treating mental illness and substance abuse largely evolved to serve the wealthy in the 1940’s, 1950’s and 1960’s.  During the hay day of Lowell’s drinking in the 1940’s, there was an acceptance of heavy drinking that was part of the culture within which he associated that covered up real insanity, with a ready excuse of bad behavior by individuals as  “just having had a few too many with the boys.”

Lowell had burned enough bridges in Boston with school mates, his father, and the upper crust of Bostonian society, that as a young adult and then throughout the rest of his life, he made New York more his adopted northern home.   He would spend long periods in New York, in between stints at various Universities, including one triumphant return to Harvard, and travel abroad.  Schwartz, who also came from money, but saw his inheritance squandered by a corrupt executor of his father’s estate, who died suddenly at age 49, was taken aback by the level of wealth and servants in Lowell’s parent’s household.  He was also shocked by the undertones of anti-Semitism that ran through the banter between Lowell and his parents during “pleasant” dining room conversation when he and Lowell would visit. 

Schwartz and Lowell were good friends, who palled around together in New York City in the 1940’s and early 1950’s when Lowell was in residence or visiting, during the high point in Schwartz’s career, when his books and poetry were being praised by Tate, Warren and others.  But writing careers are like chess games, there is an opening, a mid-game, and for the best, an end-game.  Schwartz had a clever opening and the start of a solid mid-game, but alcoholism and mental illness wore away his talents and opportunities, until even his brilliant conversational skills weren’t enough to keep his friends visiting him at his favorite bars in New York City.  He died penniless in the Chelsea Hotel in New York City at age 52.

Lowell’s dark side was in full display early in his marriage with Stafford.   There was a sense of obligation, from the car crash, that instantly began to erode its underpinnings and by 1945, Lowell was finding other female companionship to his liking better, if not for sex, at least for its pleasant diversion of company.  For someone known as a bit of prude, who didn’t counter rough talk and sex jokes among his male companions,  Lowell was unabashed in going through a series of lovers and female companions in the end stages of his marriage to Stafford.   By 1946 serious negotiations were ongoing between the two of them around dissolution through Lowell’s lawyer on what would be the financial alimony paid to Stafford in a divorce so that it could be finalized.  During this time from 1945 to 1948, Lowell and Stafford were married in name only.  Lowell used this time to travel, live in New York and then in 1947 and 1948, as the divorce was finalized, take on a position in Washington D. C. as a consultant to the Library of Congress, the post that would eventually be renamed as the position of United States Poet Laureate.   

It was during this time that Lowell lived in Washington, D. C. that he began visiting Ezra Pound in prison, who was being held on charges of treason at the Chestnut Ward at St. Elizabeths Hospital in southeast D.C.  Lowell, no stranger to mental institutions, though ones far nicer in creature comforts than St. Elizabeths, began visiting Pound for weekly conversations on poetry and literature. Lowell had always been fascinated by Pound. Lowell first contacted Pound via letter his freshmen year at College.  Pound, always a generous mentor and critic and fan of younger poets, had written back and so it is not surprising that Lowell seized this opportunity to further their friendship.

I am hopeful both men found solace in the acceptance of each other’s humanity.  As someone who is having to come to grips with the depths of his own demons, I can appreciate the generosity and dangers these types of friendships represent.  Friendships like Lowell had with both Schwartz and Pound, were the totality of their beings was not hidden, both the power of their artistic expression, the brilliance of their intellects and the brokenness of their souls, are on full display and tolerated, as friends, is a rare thing to find.   And I would hope, all three were the better for it, even if not spared from the best and the worst each brought to those relationships and their own lives.


Why Do You Write An Endless History

by Delmore Schwartz

“Why when you write do you most frequently
Look in your heart and stare at it both first
And last, half agonized by what you see
And half bemused, seeking what is accursed
Or blessed in the past? And what demand
Is gratified?” I answered, hesitant
And slow: “Because I wish to understand
The causes of each great and small event

Choosen, or like thrown dice, an accident,
-My clumsiness each time I try to dance,
My mother’s anger when I wore long pants,
Thus, as the light renews each incident,
My friends are free of guilt or I am free
Of self-accused responsibility.

The Dailiness of Life

lowell

“We poets in our youth begin in sadness; / thereof come in the end despondency and madness…

William Wordsworth

Well Water

by Randall Jarrell (1914 – 1965)

What a girl called “the dailiness of life”
(Adding an errand to your errand. Saying,
“Since you’re up . . .” Making you a means to
A means to a means to) is well water
Pumped from an old well at the bottom of the world.
The pump you pump the water from is rusty
And hard to move and absurd, a squirrel-wheel
A sick squirrel turns slowly, through the sunny
Inexorable hours. And yet sometimes
The wheel turns of its own weight, the rusty
Pump pumps over your sweating face the clear
Water, cold, so cold! you cup your hands
And gulp from them the dailiness of life.


Randall Jarrell’s and Robert Lowell’s friendship, I believe, as much influenced Robert’s Lowell’s success as a writer as any other individual.   Jarrell was finishing his undergraduate at Vanderbilt when Lowell arrived to live at Benfolly with the Tates.  That summer, John Crowe Ransom was being wooed by Kenyon College in Ohio to come turn their English program into a powerhouse and Ransom realized it would take more than him to turn Kenyon into an A league hub of literary activity, he would need bench strength.  So he recruited both Jarrell and Lowell to follow him, going so far as to let the  two of them live in the second floor of his house temporarily and then arranging for them to have comfortable student housing thereafter.

Jarrell and Lowell both spent several years at Kenyon, honing their literary talents, along with their room mate Peter Taylor.  Jarrell’s unique gift to Lowell was his ability to encourage and enjoy the poetry of his friend.   He was Lowell’s fan, biggest encourager, the person who reassured him he was going to be a legend, before he was. So confident was Jarrell in Lowell, that it shored up Lowell’s own anxiety and kept the wolves at bay in Lowell’s mind during key periods in his ascension.  When Lowell shared the early drafts of Lord Weary’s Castle with Jarrell, he was so effusive in his praise that it was like an oracle predicting Lowell’s future Pulitzer.

Jarrell and Lowell remained friends right up until Jarrell’s death.  Jarrell had fallen into a deep depression following President Kennedy’s assassination. He suffered from maniac depressive episodes and his overall health deteriorated.  While seeking medical treatment in Chapel Hill, North Carolina he was hit by a car while walking along the side of the road and died.  Though his death was ruled an accident, it always had the stain of the rumor of a possible suicide.

Jarrell was just one in a generation of poets, all acquaintances if not outright good friends, born between 1899 and 1917, who suffered from alcoholism and mental illness and died prematurely: Hart Crane, Theodore Roethke, Delmore Schwartz, Dylan Thomas, John Berryman, and Robert Lowell.  A legacy that continued with  Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton.

Berryman remarked on the tendency for the gods of literature to eat their own:

  I’m cross with God who has wrecked this generation.
First he seized Ted, then Richard, Randall, and now
Delmore….In between he gorged on Sylvia Plath.

Does it take madness to be a great poet?  Two of the great master’s of American literature who attempted to evolve the sonnet form into the 20th Century, Lowell and Berryman, eventually succumbed to the weight of their own expectations.  Is that why sonnets have largely been left in the dust bin of history,  too mingled with Lowell’s and Berryman’s blood to be an ongoing literary legacy.


Helen

by Robert Lowell

I am the blue!  I come from the lower world
to hear the serene erosion of the surf;
once more I see the galleys bleed with dawn,
and shark with muffled rowlocks into Troy,
My solitary hands recall the kings;
I used to run my fingers  through their beards;
I wept.  They sang about their shady wars,
the great gulfs boiling sternward from their keels.
I hear military trumpets, all that brass,
blasting commands to the frantic oars;
the rowers’ metronome enchains the sea,
and high on beaked and dragon prows, the gods-
their fixed, archaic smiles stung by the salt –
reach out their carved, indulgent arms to me!

Sometimes, Everything I Write

Robert Lowell (1917 – 1977)

“If we see light at the end of the tunnel, it’s the light of the oncoming train.”

Robert Lowell

Epilogue

by Robert Lowell 

Those blessèd structures, plot and rhyme—
why are they no help to me now
I want to make
something imagined, not recalled?
I hear the noise of my own voice:
The painter’s vision is not a lens,
it trembles to caress the light.
But sometimes everything I write
with the threadbare art of my eye
seems a snapshot,
lurid, rapid, garish, grouped,
heightened from life,
yet paralyzed by fact.
All’s misalliance.
Yet why not say what happened?
Pray for the grace of accuracy
Vermeer gave to the sun’s illumination
stealing like the tide across a map
to his girl solid with yearning.
We are poor passing facts,
warned by that to give
each figure in the photograph
his living name


 

Happy New Years.   My intention has been to spend the month of January doing a deeper dive into Robert Lowell,  the last white male poet to be on the cover of Time Magazine.  It is said we all foreshadow our own destruction, but in the case of Lowell, he foreshadowed not only his own, but also nearly the down fall of poetry itself in America. 

In my mind Lowell epitomizes where the politics of poetry went wrong in the 20th Century.   For an artform that is irreparably bound to breaking all the conventions in its creation, there is still politics in the way that new poets are vetted and published and paid.  Something happened as Lowell reached the zenith of his career in the 1960’s that nearly broke poetry.  The business of poetry, which was and still is in some ways, largely controlled by an elitist insulated establishment, committed the gravest of sins in my mind, it became boring.  Lowell is the demarcation point where poetry hit the proverbial white male wall. And although there have been many fine white male poets who have carried on since, the sun has set on that regime to have the type of influence, readership and popular appeal that was possible in the first half of the 20th century.  

The 1970’s, 1980’s and beyond have seen the rise of  greater diversity, different perspectives, different expressionism and  the full ascension of free verse, to the point that many poets have forgotten,  that poetry at its essence should go beyond the page and live in our mouths as well as our minds.  It should read well aloud.  The past 40 years have carved out a niche for nearly ever type of poetry, but along with it a smaller and smaller readership, at least published, even for the most successful, such that it is harder and harder for a poet to make a living as a poet.  Poetry has become what it always was, a way of thinking, a life style, but it is only for a very talented few, who can actually make a living at it without subsidizing their passion through teaching or another line of work or an acceptance of poverty.  You don’t have to be wealthy to be a poet, but it certainly doesn’t hurt if it is your desire for it to be your vocation. And such as it has been since Homer and Browning. 

Lowell wrote 100’s of sonnets in his lifetime and translated nearly that many as well from other poets.   Yet, there is not a single sonnet of Lowell’s that I can point to that anyone is likely to be familiar or that I would give a resounding, thumbs up.  The problem with celebrating Lowell is he is hard to like because his poetry is so overtly academic, it is not accessible.  Lowell’s poems are inside jokes of arcane knowledge written for the critics and his other academic friends to decipher.  And because Lowell won nearly every award a poet can win, and was heaped with praise and success, other’s followed mistakenly down his rather drab path, creating a self-compounding problem of scaring off more and more readers.  Poetry became up and through the 1990’s more and more incestuous in the process of what is published.  In my opinion, the only thing that saved poetry from extinction was the internet.  The internet over the last 20 years made it possible for writers to self publish in ways that harken back to Dicken’s selling single page periodicals in the streets.  Anyone willing to set up a blog and willing to write could access the world.  

I honestly believe more people on the planet are reading poetry than ever before, though you wouldn’t know it to look at the poetry section in your local bookstore, that is if your local book store has survived the ravages of the past 20 years and the pandemic.  The fact that local book stores have closed in droves across the United States is further evidence of the challenges that writers face in finding their audience in the traditional printed sense.  And yet, I am blown away by the level of talent that emerges year after year.   There are more good writers of poetry than ever before, even if book sales continue to decline. 

The internet has made it possible for people to create, find and share poetry like never before.  So why spend a month diving into someone I so dislike and worse disdain? Life is too short to read bad poetry. My mantra about reading poetry is the same as it is for food, consume what you enjoy!   The reason is I have decided I would like to figure out  maybe where poetry took the wrong road less traveled, particularly classical poetry and why it hit a dead end.  And to do so, I thought it might be interesting to follow that trail back and look about.   If the sonnet is a vehicle of artistic endeavor rusting in the scrap yard in most readers minds, then let’s spend a little time with one of the writers who helped run it off the road into some trees.   Lowell was connected to so many poets, first as a student,  then through his social network as friends, and then as a professor and the writers he mentored as students, that he is one of those literary figures that sits at the center of an incredible spider web of authors from the 20th century.  I will do my best over the next 30 days, to spend the majority of the time on writers other than Lowell, to which Lowell was connected, and to actually find a poem or two of Lowell’s in his vast collected works, that I enjoy.  Wish me luck.   

Happy New Years!  And if Lowell and his cronies are not to your liking.  I will see you in February. 


Bringing A Turtle Home

by Robert Lowell

On the road to Bangor, we spotted a domed stone,
a painted turtle petrified by fear.
I picked it up.  The turtle had come a long walk,
200 millennia understudy to dinosaurs,
then their survivor.  A god for the out-of-power….
Faster gods come to Castine, flush yachtsman who see
hell as a city very much like New York,
these gods gave a bad past and worse future to men
who never bother to set a spinnaker;
culture without cash isn’t worth their spit.
The laughter on Mount Olympus was always breezy….
Goodnight, little Boy, little Soldier, live,
a toy to your friend, a stone of stumbling to God —-
sandpaper Turtle, scratching your pail for water. 


Their Eyes Would Never Miss A Yes

eecummings3

sonnet entitled how to run the world

by e. e. cummings (1894 – 1962)

A always don’t there B being no such thing
for C can’t cast no shadow D drink and

E eat of her voice in whose silence the music of spring
lives F feel opens but shuts understand
G gladly forget little having less

with every least each most remembering
H highest fly only the flag that’s furled

(sestest entitled grass is flesh or seim
who can and bathe who must or any dream
means more than sleep as more than know means guess)

I item i immaculately owe
dying one life and will my rest to these

children building this rainman out of snow


true lovers in each happening of their hearts

by e. e. cummings

true lovers in each happening of their hearts
live longer than all which and every who;
despite what fear denies, what hope asserts,
what falsest both disprove by proving true

(all doubts, all certainties, as villain strive
and heroes through the mere mind’s poor pretend
-grim comics of duration:only love
immortally occurs beyond the mind)

such a forever is love’s any now
and her each here is such an everywhere,
even more true would truest lovers grow
if out of midnight dropped more suns than are

(yes;and if time should ask into his was
all shall,their eyes would never miss a yes)

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.

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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.