And some time make the time to drive out west
Into County Clare, along the Flaggy Shore,
In September or October, when the wind
And the light are working off each other
So that the ocean on one side is wild
With foam and glitter, and inland among stones
The surface of a slate-grey lake is lit
By the earthed lightning of a flock of swans,
Their feathers roughed and ruffling, white on white,
Their fully grown headstrong-looking heads
Tucked or cresting or busy underwater.
Useless to think you’ll park and capture it
More thoroughly. You are neither here nor there,
A hurry through which known and strange things pass
As big soft buffetings come at the car sideways
And catch the heart off guard and blow it open.
St Kevin and the Blackbird
by Seamus Heaney
And then there was St Kevin and the blackbird.
The saint is kneeling, arms stretched out, inside
His cell, but the cell is narrow, so
One turned-up palm is out the window, stiff
As a crossbeam, when a blackbird lands
And lays in it and settles down to nest.
Kevin feels the warm eggs, the small breast, the tucked
Neat head and claws and, finding himself linked
Into the network of eternal life,
Is moved to pity: now he must hold his hand
Like a branch out in the sun and rain for weeks
Until the young are hatched and fledged and flown.
And since the whole thing’s imagined anyhow,
Imagine being Kevin. Which is he?
Self-forgetful or in agony all the time
From the neck on out down through his hurting forearms?
Are his fingers sleeping? Does he still feel his knees?
Or has the shut-eyed blank of underearth
Crept up through him? Is there distance in his head?
Alone and mirrored clear in love’s deep river,
‘To labour and not to seek reward,’ he prays,
A prayer his body makes entirely
For he has forgotten self, forgotten bird
And on the riverbank forgotten the river’s name.
I take the snap from the center, fake to the right, fade back…
I’ve got protection. I’ve got a receiver open downfield…
What the hell is this? This isn’t a football, it’s a shoe, a man’s
brown leather oxford. A cousin to a football maybe, the same
skin, but not the same, a thing made for the earth, not the air.
I realize that this is a world where anything is possible and I
understand, also, that one often has to make do with what one
has. I have eaten pancakes, for instance, with that clear corn
syrup on them because there was no maple syrup and they
weren’t very good. Well, anyway, this is different. (My man
downfield is waving his arms.) One has certain responsibilities,
one has to make choices. This isn’t right and I’m not going
to throw it.
Luis Jenkins died in December of 2019. He was celebrated locally, a Minnesota poet, a denizen of our great north woods and a master story teller in verse. How widely known he was outside of Minnesota I don’t know but he had a solid fan base in the upper Midwest. Jenkins rubbed shoulders with other writers and poets in Minnesota and reached a broader audience through his regular contributions on Prairie Home Companion with Garrison Keillor.
Jenkins free-verse poems at first glance do not look like “sonnets”. His careful construction, attention to detail in how they read verbally and length definitely build off the sonnet tradition. If you add up the total number of syllables in many of his poems they are eerily similar in length to a sonnet’s traditional 140.
Free Lawn Mower
by Louis Jenkins
There’s a broken down lawn mower at the curbside with a sign reading “FREE.” And so I ask myself, what does freedom mean to a lawn mower? A lawn mower that has only one job and no outside interests, a job which it can no longer perform? Gone the days of the engine’s roar, the cloud of blue smoke, the open lawn, the waves of cut grass left in its wake, the flying gravel, the mutilated paper cup. Freedom could only mean the freedom to rust away into powder and scale. Most likely the lawn mower will be thrown into the back of a beat-up truck by a guy who sees its potential as scrap, a guy who will seize upon anything of even the slightest value, anything free.
“Like children bathing on the shore
Buried a wave beneath,
The second wave succeeds before
We have had time to breathe.”
Sonnets To A Republican Friend
by Matthew Arnold
God knows it, I am with you. If to prize
Those virtues, priz’d and practis’d by too few,
But priz’d, but lov’d but eminent in you,
Man’s fundamental life: if to despise
The barren optimistic sophistries
of comfortable moles, whom what they do
Teach the limits of the just and true
And for so doing, have no need of eyes
If sadness of the long heart-wasting show
Wherein earth’s great ones are disquieted:
If thoughts, not idle, while before me flow
The armies of the homeless and unfed: –
If these are yours, if these are what you are
Then I am you, and what you feel, I share.
I can almost feel the anxiety creeping up through the internet the past couple of days from people reading this blog. I am torn between posting fluff and feel good poetry as a distraction to the disruption in our lives or share something with a bit more gristle attached to the bone. If I am wrestling with it, the answer is probably do both.
If there are good things to come out of COVID-19, it will be what each of us focuses on in response to these challenges of change. Here’s the good I see; friends and family rallying around their elders, dropping off food, connecting with them by phone and Facetime and Skype. I hear friends reconnecting with their neighbors, sharing food and childcare and reassuring each other, supporting each other. I hear both fear and boastfulness of good health, but across that wide span, I am watching people talking to each other. Maybe what will come out of social distancing is a sense of community. A realization of what we value, a longing for our neighbors and neighborhoods when we re-emerge. We can’t isolate ourselves completely from this global world we find ourselves. This is true for the person sitting on their couch binge watching Netflix and for nations. At some point we are going to have come out of social isolation and take the risks we have always taken. The risk that there are communicable diseases in our world.
Wendell Berry is a gifted writer and poet, who speaks to our personal well being in ourselves as a direct reflection of the well being of our communities:
“A community is the mental and spiritual condition of knowing that the place is shared, and that the people who share the place define and limit the possibilities of each other’s lives. It is the knowledge that people have of each other, their concern for each other, their trust in each other, the freedom with which they come and go among themselves.”
I listened to the church service I had planned to attend Sunday morning at Westminster Presbyterian in Minneapolis by live stream. It was a first. It wasn’t nearly as spiritual or relevant. It wasn’t even a good substitute for being there. I won’t pretend. It was a thing unto itself that if I am going to get anything out of it, I will have to accept it for what it is, a video on a screen. I still enjoyed viewing it. What did it inspire me to do? Take a few of my business cards and slip them under my neighbors doors, who I have said hi to in the hall in the past but never really met as they all have moved in relatively recently and I am never home. I wrote on the back – “Howdy Neighbor, I am your neighbor in 208. If you need anything, give me a call.”
As this thing progresses and turns into weeks, months and potentially years, the question we are going to ask ourselves at some point is when do we shift from fear to living bravely? We can’t shut out our parents, our neighbors forever, we can’t close our schools forever, we can’t all work from home and actually survive and move forward. At some point we have to accept the risk of living. Otherwise, like the protagonist in Wendell Berry’s poem below, we shall cease to experience, cease to be even in, our own lives. For as Matthew Arnold says: “Then I am you, and what you feel, I share.”
Whatever happens. Whatever what is is is what
I want. Only that. But that.
Thomas Gent (1693 – 1778)
Fair flower! that fall’n beneath the angry blast,
Which marks with wither’d sweets its fearful way,
I grieve to see thee on the low earth cast,
While beauty’s trembling tints fade fast away.
But who is she, that from the mountain’s head
Comes gaily on, cheering the child of earth;
The walks of woe bloom bright beneath her tread,
And nature smiles with renovated mirth?
‘Tis Health! she comes, and hark! the vallies ring.
And hark! the echoing hills repeat the sound;
She sheds the new-blown blossoms of the spring,
And all their fragrance floats her footsteps round.
And hark! she whispers in the zephyr’s voice,
Lift up thy head, fair flower! rejoice! rejoice!
The zombie apocalypse has begun. At least it feels that way a bit with corona virus in the news 24/7. All my plans for the next 30 days seem to have been reformed, rewritten or scrapped all together as the week progressed. The picture changes by the day in terms of what does and doesn’t make sense in terms of travel, over reacting, under reacting – who knows? I am feeling second guessed (mostly by myself) for any decision I make regarding human contact. The politically correct thing to do right now is stay home for the next 14 days, avoid all human contact, but that seems a little extreme given that we likely have barely even kicked this pandemic off yet. We maybe only experiencing the pre-game ceremonies of the covid-19 games and just at the start of the first quarter. It’s going to be a long, long game. Hope you stocked up on toilet paper, nacho chips and salsa.
I enjoyed Stephen Fry’s tweet on Friday. Go team Fry! Even if we aren’t related, Stephen and I, I am always glad to see my namesakes being compassionate and intelligent. I agree, kindness and civility need to rule the day right now. It’s okay to be a rattled or even activated by all this crazy weirdness of COVID – 19. Reach out to friends and family and stay connected even if that means a little less face to face and a little more technology. Ask for reassurance. It is going to be okay, even though sadly, for some it probably won’t. That was true before COVID – 19 and will be true after it. However, faith in the benevolence of the universe is a better place to start this next global recession than grabby pessimism.
St. Francis and the Sow
by Galway Kinnell (1927 – 2014)
stands for all things,
even for those things that don’t flower,
for everything flowers, from within, of self-blessing;
though sometimes it is necessary
to reteach a thing its loveliness,
to put a hand on its brow
of the flower
and retell it in words and in touch
it is lovely
until it flowers again from within, of self-blessing;
as Saint Francis
put his hand on the creased forehead
of the sow, and told her in words and in touch
blessings of earth on the sow, and the sow
began remembering all down her thick length,
from the earthen snout all the way
through the fodder and slops to the spiritual curl of the tail,
from the hard spininess spiked out from the spine
down through the great broken heart
to the sheer blue milken dreaminess spurting and shuddering
from the fourteen teats into the fourteen mouths sucking and blowing beneath them:
It’s as if what is unbreakable—
the very pulse of life—waits for
everything else to be torn away,
and then in the bareness that
only silence and suffering and
great love can expose, it dares
to speak through us and to us.
It seems to say, if you want to last,
hold on to nothing. If you want
to know love, let in everything.
If you want to feel the presence
of everything, stop counting the
things that break along the way.
I Saw Sorrow
I saw Sorrow
holding a cup of pain.
I said, hey sorrow,
sorry to see you this way.
What’s troubling you?
What’s with the cup?
what else can I do?
All this Joy that you have brought to the world
has killed my business completely.
“I know the dark delight of being strange,
The penalty of difference in the crowd,
The loneliness of wisdom among fools,
Yet never have I felt but very proud,
Though I have suffered agonies of hell,
Of living in my own peculiar cell.
― Claude McKay – My House
To The White Fiends
by Claude McKay
THINK you I am not fiend and savage too?
Think you I could not arm me with a gun
And shoot down ten of you for every one
Of my black brothers murdered, burnt by you?
Be not deceived, for every deed you do
I could match –out-match: am I not Africa’s son,
Black of that black land where black deeds are done?
But the Almighty from the darkness drew
My soul and said: Even though shaft be a light
Awhile to burn on benighted earth,
Thy dusky face I set among the white
For thee to prove thyself of highest worth;
Before the world is swallowed up at night,
To show thy little lamp: go forth, go forth!
by Claude McKay
Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth!
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate.
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet as a rebel fronts a king in state,
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.
You should always be trying to write a poem you are unable to write, a poem you lack the technique, the language, the courage to achieve. Otherwise you are merely imitating yourself, going nowhere, because that’s always easiest.
The Dream Songs – 177
by John Berryman
Am tame now. You may touch me, who had thrilled
(before) your tips, twitcht from your breast your heart;
& burst your willing brain.
I am tame now. Undead, I was not killed
by Henry’s viewers but maimed. It is my art
to buzz the spotlight in vain,
flighting ‘at random’ while Addison wins.
I would not want war with Addison. I love him
and Addison so loves me back
me backsides, I may perish in his grins
& grip. I would he liked me less, less grim.
but he has helpt me, slack
& sick & hopeful, anew to know what man –
scrubbing the multiverse with dazzled tonight –
still has in store for man:
a doghouse or a cave, is all we could,
according to my dreams. I stand in doubt,
surrounded by holy wood.
This post marks the four hundredth blog of fourteen lines, forty percent to my goal of one thousand blog entries. I thank all of you who visit this space, whether a single time, once in a while or regularly. I hope our shared experience of reading and enjoying poetry connects us in some way to a global thread of shared humanity.
I find Berryman an inspiration on persistence. That may be an odd thing to say about a man who jumped off a bridge, but he had harbored that longing to end things on his terms for a long, long time before he finally acted on it. He did the best he could and continued his voyage as an artist for nearly 8 decades, no small accomplishment given his tendency towards self destruction. There is nothing at all to do with this Mr. Bones and that Mr. Bones. Or is there?
I recently attended a retreat where I was not allowed to talk, use a cell phone, computer or technology of any kind for 3.5 days. It was a very rewarding experience, something I would eagerly do again. It was good to reacquaint myself with the silence of my own mind, to retreat back to my childhood tech-less self. What a terrible curse we have placed on the generations that will know only screens, smart phones and blinking flashing things, all commanding our constant attention. The curse of 24 hour news cycle and the constant barrage of information. I promptly went out and bought a singing bowl, to make a deeper commitment to daily meditation and silence.
The experience also made me ponder the words “retreat”, “recollected”, and “reparations.” It also made think deeply about the word play of “spouse” and “espouse.” Is this what poets do? Geek out on words bumping around in our skulls when we are told we can only use our inside voices and not our speaking voices. When was the last time you couldn’t or didn’t speak to another human being for a whole day? Did it invigorate you or did it test you? Did you want to scream, tell a joke or sing or remain silent when it was over?
The Dream Songs – 223
by John Berryman
It’s wonderful the way cats bound about,
it’s wonderful how men are not found out
It’s miserable how many miserable are
over the spread world at this tick of time.
These mysteries that I’m
rehearsing in the dark did brighter minds
much bother through them ages, whom who finds
guilty for failure?
Up all we rose with dawn, springy for pride,
trying all morning. Dazzled, I subside
at noon, noon be my gaoler
and afternoon the deepening of the task
poor Henry set himself long since to ask:
Why? Who? When?
— I don’t know, Mr. Bones. You asks too much
of such as you & me & such
fast cats, worse men.