This Halo We Discover

soldiers-washing-1927
Soldiers Washing (1927) Stanley Spencer

Soldiers Washing 

by Ricardo Pau-Llosa (1954 – 

   after the painting by Stanley Spencer

Even washing is a task, in war and daily
life. The warm and pour, the fresh linen,
the hourglass of soap in its melt telling
us how our tired flesh gleams to fiction
renewal. Time is at war. We are meant to lose
that we may grasp what we know: the waste
of passioned effort. The soldier nearest to us
dunks his face in the bowl, a murky foretaste
of baptismal death. This halo we discover
from which he’ll surely rise, suspender cords
rhyming the sink. Next to him another
wrings the towel and turns his head toward
Bellona. Not incongruous. The patroness,
too, of the trench of days and the hearth’s duress.

 


There is a different feel to Memorial Day this year, a bit more melancholy, like there is a collective mourning that goes far beyond remembrances of veterans in our families and communities, but an appreciation and sorrow for the disconnect from the recent past to our current present. Grief is a part of life, loss is a part of life, and allowing ourselves to feel the full range of our emotions is an important part of mental health.

I picked the poem Soldiers Washing by Pau-Llosa because of how the act of washing has taken on a different meaning since the pandemic.  A habit I have gotten into is washing my hands as I enter the house. The act of hand washing has started to take on a new ritual, a chance to pause, reflect and be grateful.  It is an opportunity to be in the present.

The poem above makes more sense if you have a proper context for the word Bellona as the ancient Roman goddess of war. On this memorial day,  are you reflecting?  Where are your thoughts? What are you mourning? What are you celebrating? For what are you grateful?

Bruxelles_Bellone_905
Bellona, Goddess of War

 


The Departed

by Edgar Albert Guest (1881 – 1959)

IF no one ever went ahead,
If we had seen no friend depart
And mourned him for a while as dead,
How great would be our fear to start.

If no one for us led the way,
No loved one, garbed in angel white
Stood there, a welcome word to say,
Then we should fear the Heavenly flight.

If we should never say ‘good bye,’
Should never shed the parting tear,
We’d face the journey to the sky
In horrible despair and fear.

It is because our friends have gone
And left us in this vale of breath,
Because of those who’ve journeyed on,
That we can bravely smile at death

Win Thy Happier Fate

Bronte Sisters
Bronte sisters: Anne, Emily and Charlotte (left to right)

“Crying does not indicate that you are weak. Since birth, it has always been a sign that you are alive.”

Charlotte Bronte (1816 – 1855)

Sleep Brings No Joy To Me

by Emily Bronte (1818 – 1848)

Sleep brings no joy to me,
Remembrance never dies;
My soul is given to misery
And lives in sighs.

Sleep brings no rest to me;
The shadows of the dead
My waking eyes may never see
Surround my bed.

Sleep brings no hope to me;
In sounder sleep they come.
And with their doleful imagery
Deepen the gloom

Sleep brings no strength to me,
No power renewed to brave:
I only sail a wilder sea,
A darker wave.

Sleep brings no friend to me
To soothe and aid to bear;
They all gaze, oh, how scornfully,
And I despair.

Sleep brings no wish to knit
My harassed heart beneath:
My only wish is to forget
In the sleep of death.

 


 

Peace

by John Keats (1795 – 1821)

O PEACE! and dost thou with thy presence bless
The dwellings of this war-surrounded Isle;
Soothing with placid brow our late distress,
Making the triple kingdom brightly smile?
Joyful I hail thy presence; and I hail
The sweet companions that await on thee;
Complete my joy let not my first wish fail,
Let the sweet mountain nymph thy favourite be,
With England’s happiness proclaim Europa’s Liberty.
O Europe! let not sceptred tyrants see
That thou must shelter in thy former state;
Keep thy chains burst, and boldly say thou art free;
Give thy kings law leave not uncurbed the great ;
So with the horrors past thou’lt win thy happier fate!

In Forgetfulness Divine

download (3)
John Keats

I was never afraid of failure, for I would sooner fail than not be among the greatest.

John Keats

On Sleep

by John Keats (1795 – 1821)

O soft embalmer of the still midnight!
Shutting with careful fingers and benign
Our gloom-pleased eyes, embower’d from the light,
Enshaded in forgetfulness divine;
O soothest Sleep! if so it please thee, close,
In midst of this thine hymn, my willing eyes,
Or wait the amen, ere thy poppy throws
Around my bed its lulling charities;
Then save me, or the passèd day will shine
Upon my pillow, breeding many woes;
Save me from curious conscience, that still lords
Its strength for darkness, burrowing like a mole;
Turn the key deftly in the oilèd wards,
And seal the hushèd casket of my soul.


A Long, Long Sleep

by Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886)

A long — long Sleep — A famous — Sleep —
That makes no show for Morn —
By Stretch of Limb — or stir of Lid —
An independent One —

Was ever idleness like This?
Upon a Bank of Stone
To bask the Centuries away —
Nor once look up — for Noon

I Have Wasted My Life

J.-Wright
James Wright

“Suddenly I realize that if I stepped out of my body I would break into blossom. ”

James Wright

Lying in a Hammock on William Duffy’s Farm

by James Wright

Over my head, I see the bronze butterfly,
Asleep on the black trunk,
Blowing like a leaf in green shadow.
Down the ravine behind the empty house,
The cowbells follow one another
Into the distances of the afternoon.
To my right,
In a field of sunlight between two pines,
The droppings of last year’s horses
Blaze up into golden stones.
I lean back, as the evening darkens and comes on.
A chicken hawk floats over, looking for home.
I have wasted my life.

 


One of the things I appreciate about James Wright, is the slight fog which permeates even his most sunny days.   On a week that saw me turn a rather harmless late 50’s birthday, I have had that thought more than once in the past month, “I have wasted my life.” Hasn’t every late 50’s something man and woman thought that at least once? However, maybe not in the way you might think. When I read the last line of Wright’s poem, what I think he is saying to me is, “I wasted my life” not by doing nothing or not doing more, but by not doing nothing more often!

There is a symmetry to my late 50’s. My children are the ages that I was when I had them. My surviving parent is likely older than the age I will be when I die. It feels like I am at a juncture where I can see the past and the future and the question is what is yet to be done?  It certainly isn’t climb the corporate ladder or build a bigger house or buy typical retirement toys, in other words do the things many people aspire to do as a measure of success at this stage in their lives. For me its strive to still write a few more good poems, nourish my irresponsible self and be the person sitting in a hammock on William Duffy’s farm and do absolutely nothing but think, read and look at the beauty around me.  My greatest ambition the next 30 years is to do less more often and do it in peace.

Wright is an interesting character. He wrote more than one masterful sonnet, but metrical structured poetry was not his best legacy.  Wright’s poetry fit the era in which it came forth: a celebration of fly over land, the unremarkable Midwest and a reconciliation of the beginning of when working class, middle class unexceptional white men began fading into obscurity, or so it has felt, maybe they were always in obscurity and Wright’s poetry was finally just stating the obvious. Reading Wright always feels to me like I am so grateful they hadn’t invented medications for depression yet, because a placated, medicated Wright would have been a boring writer I fear.

If you could waste your life more brilliantly, what would you do? What unremarkable thing do you still aspire to achieve? Where do you need to hang your hammock  and let the clouds and bronze butterflies float by? During this time of working from home, ask yourself this question?  How hard should you really be working right now? Is your 70% good enough at a time when productivity and all measures of it by an economist are not going to improve our national economy and GDP, unless we define GDP as Good Devoted People. Be good to yourself. Do good for others. Let that be our measure of GDP and if you take a few minutes to read or write some poetry today, look at it as the most productive thing you did all day.


Saint Judas

by James Wright

When I went out to kill myself, I caught
a pack of hoodlums beating up a man.
Running to spare his suffering, I forgot
My name, my number, how my day began,
How soldiers milled around the garden stone
And sang amusing songs; how all that day
Their javelins measured crowds; how I alone
Bargained the proper coins, and slipped away
Banished from heaven, I found this victim beaten,
Stripped, kneed, and left to cry.  Dropping my rope
Aside, I ran, ignored the uniforms:
Then I remembered bread my flesh had eaten,
The kiss that ate my flesh.  Flayed without hope,
I held the man for nothing in my arms.

We Bear The Sole, Relentless Tenderness

pablo-neruda
Pablo Neruda

You can cut all the flowers, but you can not keep Spring from coming.

Pablo Neruda

In The Wave-Strike Over Unquiet Stones

by Pablo Neruda

In the wave-strike over unquiet stones
the brightness bursts and bears the rose
and the ring of water contracts to a cluster
to one drop of azure brine that falls.
O magnolia radiance breaking in spume,
magnetic voyager whose death flowers
and returns, eternal, to being and nothingness:
shattered brine, dazzling leap of the ocean.
Merged, you and I, my love, seal the silence
while the sea destroys its continual forms,
collapses its turrets of wildness and whiteness,
because in the weft of those unseen garments
of headlong water, and perpetual sand,
we bear the sole, relentless tenderness.


I am like Neruda at the start of his poem Poetry, I don’t where poetry arrived in search of me, but I do know when.   I was just about to turn 50 and it came over me like a wave, quite suddenly my connection to poetry.  And it wasn’t just one poet, it was a host of poets, calling to me, dropping little bombs into my life, most of them resonating because of one or two lines before the whole of it made more sense after many readings. And then it turned into a flood, a torrent, that carried me along of its own accord.  I could have swum sideways to the current and reached shore and gotten out, but I decided to see where that river might carry me and it has carried me beyond where I ever anticipated.

As Neruda says; “it was at that age.”  What age was it for you, when poetry arrived?  How did it come into your life, slowly or with a host of trumpets, heralding its arrival?  Where is poetry now on your journey?  Where have you yet to let it take you? Where will you let it take you?


Poetry

by Pablo Neruda

And it was at that age … Poetry arrived
in search of me. I don’t know, I don’t know where
it came from, from winter or a river.
I don’t know how or when,
no they were not voices, they were not
words, nor silence,
but from a street I was summoned,
from the branches of night,
abruptly from the others,
among violent fires
or returning alone,
there I was without a face
and it touched me.

I did not know what to say, my mouth
had no way
with names,
my eyes were blind,
and something started in my soul,
fever or forgotten wings,
and I made my own way,
deciphering
that fire,
and I wrote the first faint line,
faint, without substance, pure
nonsense,
pure wisdom
of someone who knows nothing,
and suddenly I saw
the heavens
unfastened
and open,
planets,
palpitating plantations,
shadow perforated,
riddled
with arrows, fire and flowers,
the winding night, the universe.

And I, infinitesimal being,
drunk with the great starry
void,
likeness, image of
mystery,
felt myself a pure part
of the abyss,
I wheeled with the stars,
my heart broke loose on the wind.

I See Them In My Dreams

achebe
Chinua Achebe (1930 – 2013)

Art is man’s constant effort to create for himself a different order of reality from that which is given to him.

Chinua Achebe

Refugee Mother and Child

by Chinua Achebe

No Madonna and Child could touch
that picture of a mother’s tenderness
for a son she soon would have to forget.
The air was heavy with odours
of diarrhoea of unwashed children
with washed-out ribs and dried-up
bottoms struggling in laboured
steps behind blown empty bellies.

Most mothers there had long ceased
to care but not this one; she held
a ghost smile between her teeth
and in her eyes the ghost of a mother’s
pride as she combed the rust-coloured
hair left on his skull and then –
singing in her eyes – began carefully
to part it… In another life this
would have been a little daily
act of no consequence before his
breakfast and school; now she
did it like putting flowers
on a tiny grave.

 


There are times I come across poems that make the hair on the back of neck stand up.  So it was with both of these, the words creating an indelible imprint of empathy for the hard road of poverty that so many endure. It’s hard to fathom all of the secondary effects of this pandemic, to truly quantify how it will make hard lives even harder, but its a certainty that more people will wake up hungry in the coming year because of it. And already strained humanitarian efforts in many parts of the world will be stretched even further.  Hunger is a universal issue as prevalent in the affluence of the United States as elsewhere.   As we search for medical solutions to help us address this global issue, let’s not lose sight of other basic needs like access to clean water, clean air and food that should be the right of human being on this planet, not a privilege reserved for the wealthy.  How should governments work to make a better future for the least among us, not just the most powerful and connected?


Dream-Children

by Syned
(South African Poet)

I see them in my dreams. Their tiny hands
Clutch feebly at the air; upon my face
Blows their sweet breath; a little voice demands
My eager kisses. In that soft embrace
A sense of aching, though I know not why,
A sense of some forgotten, longed-for joy,
A joy that thrills me through, yet makes me sigh,
That time could never change, nor death destroy;
Still in my dreams I clasp them to my breast,
Their soft warm presence folded close to mine;
And o’er me steals the balm of perfect rest,
And through my veins a gladness like to wine.
I murmur, shiver–then, as cold as stone,
Awake–and oh, dear God! awake alone.

Our Poor Eyes, Knowing Only

Death Sonnets I

by Gabriela Mistral (1889 – 1957)

From the icy niche where men placed you
I lower your body to the sunny, poor earth.
They didn’t know I too must sleep in it
and dream on the same pillow.

I place you in the sunny ground, with a
mother’s sweet care for her napping child,
and the earth will be a soft cradle
when it receives your hurt childlike body.

I scatter bits of earth and rose dust,
and in the moon’s airy and blue powder
what is left of you is a prisoner.

I leave singing my lovely revenge.
No hand will reach into the obscure depth
to argue with me over your handful of bones.

Los Sonetos de la Muerte

by Gabriela Mistral

I

Del nicho helado en que los hombres te pusieron,
te bajaré a la tierra humilde y soleada.
Que he de dormirme en ella los hombres no supieron,
y que hemos de soñar sobre la misma almohada.

Te acostaré en la tierra soleada, con una
dulcedumbre de madre para el hijo dormido,
y la tierra ha de hacerse suavidades de cuna
al recibir tu cuerpo de niño dolorido.

Luego iré espolvoreando tierra y polvo de rosas,
y en la azulada y leve polvareda de luna,
los despojos livianos irán quedando presos.

Me alejaré cantando mis venganzas hermosas
¡porque a ese hondor recóndito la mano de ninguna
bajará a disputarme tu puñado de huesos!


Gabriel Mistral was the pseudonym for Lucila Godoy y Alcayaga, Mistral began writing poetry in her early twenties following the tragic death of her lover. Mistral was an educator by profession, teaching elementary, secondary school until her poetry made her famous. Her status in Latin America literature afforded her the opportunity to become an advocate for education in both Mexico and Chile. Mistral was active on cultural committees of the League of Nations, becoming the Chilean consul in Naples, Madrid and Lisbon. Mistral later taught Spanish literature in the United States at Columbia University, Middlebury College, Vassar College, and at the University of Puerto Rico.

Mistral’s Sonetos de la muerte (love poems in memory of the dead), made her known throughout Latin America, but her first heralded collection of poems, Desolación [Despair], was published in 1922. Mistral wrote poetry about many themes, but her volumes published in 1924 and 1938 dealt with childhood and maternity and tenderness. Mistral was recognized for her contributions to literature and won the Nobel Prize in 1948.

I share below two translations of her poem Alondras, one by Langston Hughes and one by Ursula K. Le Guin.  It’s interesting to see how each poet approached the poem and their different interpretations. I regret that my Spanish is not good enough to read it in the original and understand it more fully, but I am grateful that Mistral’s work inspired great minds to translate it into English.  Do you have a favorite Mistral poem?


Alondras

by Gabriela Mistral

Bajaron a mancha de trigo
y al acercarnos, voló la banda,
y la alamede sd quedó
del azoro como rasgada.

En matorrales parcecen fuego;
cuando suben, plata lanzada,
y passan antes de que passen,
y te rebanan la alabanza.

Saben no más los pobres ojos
que passó toda la bandada,
y gritando llaman “alondras!”
a lo que sube, se pierde y canta.

Y en este aire malherido
nos han dejado llenos de ansia,
con el asombro y el tremblor
a mitad del cuerpo y el alma….

Alondras, hijo, nos cruzamos
las alondras, por la llanda!

 

Larks

by Gabriela Mistral

translated by Langston Hughes

They came down in a patch of wheat,
and, as we drew near,
the flock flew away
and left the startled field quite empty.

In the thicket they look like fire;
when they rise, like silver darting.
And they go by even before they go,
cutting through your wonder.

Our poor eyes, knowing only
that the whole flock has gone,
cry “Larks!” to those who rise,
and are lost, and sing.

In the sorely wounded air
they leave us full of yearning,
with a wonder and a quiver
in body and in soul…

Larks, son! Above us sweep
the larks across the plain!

Larks

Translated by Ursula K. Le Guin

They were in the scattered wheat.
As we came near, the whole flock
flew, and the poplars stood
as if struck by a hawk.

Sparks in stubble: when they rise,
silver thrown up in air.
They’re past before they pass,
too quick for praise.

Eyes are too slow to see
the whole flock’s taken wing,
and we shout, “Larks!”
at what’s up–lost–singing.

In the air they wounded
they’ve left us with a longing,
a tremor, a wonder
half of the body, half of the soul.

Larks, child–see,
larks rise from the wheat!