Breaking Into Blossom

Robert Bly
Robert Bly  (1926 to present)

Seeing The Eclipse in Maine

by Robert Bly

It started about noon.  On top of Mount Batte,
We were all exclaiming.  Someone had a cardboard
And a pin, and we all cried out when the sun
Appeared in tiny form on the notebook cover.

It was hard to believe.  The high school teacher
We’d met called it a pinhole camera,
People in the Renaissance loved to do that.
And when the moon had passed partly through

We saw on a rock underneath a fir tree,
Dozens of crescents—made the same way—
Thousands!  Even our straw hats produced
A few as we moved them over the bare granite.

We shared chocolate, and one man from Maine
Told a joke.  Suns were everywhere—at our feet.

 


Is poetry a monologue or a dialogue?   An old question, easily answered from my perspective;  it is a dialogue, poetry is a conversation, its up to you to figure out the response.

Robert Bly was born in Madison, Minnesota and continues to live and work in Western Minnesota to the present day.   Robert Bly and James Arlington Wright were friends, and helped put Midwestern poetry on the map in the 1950’s.  Bly’s life work as a poet is vast, expanding the wealth of English literature by translating a diverse range of poets across many languages with a focus on the spiritual in addition to his many collections of his own poetry.

I worked in Lac Qui Parle County, the landscape of much of Bly’s poetry, for 7 years in the 1990’s.   Bly may travel the world within his writing, but it is all grounded in the rich clay silt loam of the prairie.  I find it reassuring to see a glimpse of the land I have traveled as an Agronomist for 30 plus years within the poetry of both Bly and Wright.

Bly and Wright traveled very different personal paths in using poetry to wrestle with their demons. Bly being older by one year and yet outliving Wright by 38 years and counting.   Wright’s depression is palpable within his poetry, but rather than lessen the experience it heightens it.  Both Bly and Wright poetry invite a discussion on the wonderment of this planet and the human condition.


A Blessing Poem

by James Arlington Wright (1927 – 1980)

Just off the highway to Rochester, Minnesota,
Twilight bounds softly forth on the grass.
And the eyes of those two Indian ponies
Darken with kindness.
They have come gladly out of the willows
To welcome my friend and me.
We step over the barbed wire into the pasture
Where they have been grazing all day, alone.
They ripple tensely, they can hardly contain their happiness
That we have come.
They bow shyly as wet swans. They love each other.
There is no loneliness like theirs.
At home once more, they begin munching the young tufts of spring in the darkness.
I would like to hold the slenderer one in my arms,
For she has walked over to me
And nuzzled my left hand.
She is black and white,
Her mane falls wild on her forehead,
And the light breeze moves me to caress her long ear
That is delicate as the skin over a girl’s wrist.
Suddenly I realize
That if I stepped out of my body I would break
Into blossom.

 

 

The Beat of Life is Wearing Me

HazelHall
Hazel Hall (1886 – 1924)

Flash

by Hazel Hall

I am less of myself and more of the sun;
The beat of life is wearing me
To an incomplete oblivion,
Yet not to the certain dignity
Of death.They cannot even die
Who have not lived.

,,,,,,,,,,,,,,…………….,,,The hungry jaws
Of space snap at my unlearned eye,
And time tears in my flesh like claws.

If I am not life’s, if I am not death’s,
Out of chaos I must re-reap
The burden of untasted breaths.
Who has not waked may not yet sleep.


 

Hazel Hall was born in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1886, but moved at a young age to Portland, Oregon where she would live the rest of her life.  She published three volumes of poetry during her relatively short career.   Hall survived scarlet fever at age 12 and used a wheel chair for the rest of her life.

I have just recently discovered Hall’s poetry, and I am surprised at how fresh her voice sounds and relevant.   Her words have aged well. Though the poem Flash is not a traditional sonnet, it has the backbone of a sonnet that Hall has made original by reduction, not addition and in a flash, made it her own.

In Hall’s poem Two Sewing, I enjoy her power of description, rhythm, and metaphor, the rain stitching the earth together, through the eyes of one who has seen the cracks from a drought.  Living in Portland, rain is a frequent companion, a metronome, by which days and seasons can be measured.  Spring will soon arrive and it will arrive at the end of a needle of rain.


Two Sewing

by Hazel Hall

The Wind is sewing with needles of rain.
With shining needles of rain
It stitches into the thin Cloth of earth.
In, In, in, in. Oh, the wind has often sewed with me.
One, two, three. Spring must have fine things
To wear like other springs. Of silken green the grass must be
Embroidered. One and two and three.
Then every crocus must be made
So subtly as to seem afraid
Of lifting colour from the ground;
And after crocuses the round
Heads of tulips, and all the fair
Intricate garb that Spring will wear.
The wind must sew with needles of rain,
With shining needles of rain,
Stitching into the thin

Cloth of earth, in,
In, in, in,
For all the springs of futurity.
One, two, three

 

Hurled In Defiance At Our Blackest World

Crosby2
Harry Crosby

Invocation To The Mad Queen

by Harry Crosby

I would you were the hollow ship
fashioned to bear the cargo of my love
the unrelenting glove
hurled in defiance at our blackest world
or that great banner mad unfurled
the poet plants upon the hill of time
or else amphora for the gold of life
liquid and naked as a virgin wife.
Yourself the prize
I gird with Fire
The Great White Ruin
Of my Desire.
I burn to gold
fierce and unerring as a conquering sword
I burn to gold
fierce and undaunted as a lion lord
seeking your Bed
and leave to them the
burning of the dead.

 

Temple De La Douleur

Harry Crosby

My soul has suffered breaking on the wheel,
Flogging with lead, and felt the twinging ache
Of barbéd hooks and jagged points of steel,
Peine forte et dure, slow burning at the stake,
Blinding and branding, stripping on the rack,
The canque and kourbash and the torquéd screw,
The boot and branks, red scourging on the back,
The gallows and the gibbet. All for you.

These tortures are as nothing to the pain
That I have suffered when you gaze at me
With cold disdainful eyes. You do not deign
To smile or talk or even set me free-
Yet once you let me hold your perfumed hand
And danced with me a stately saraband.

Silent Answers Crept Across The Stars

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Eight Bells Folly: Memorial to Hart Crane by Marsden Hartley (1877-1943)

My life closed twice before its close—
It yet remains to see
If Immortality unveil
A third event to me

So huge, so hopeless to conceive
As these that twice befell.
Parting is all we know of heaven,
And all we need of hell.

Emily Dickinson

At Melville’s Tomb

by Hart Crane

Often beneath the wave, wide from this ledge
The dice of drowned men’s bones he saw bequeath
An embassy. Their numbers as he watched,
Beat on the dusty shore and were obscured.
And wrecks passed without sound of bells,
The calyx of death’s bounty giving back
A scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph,
The portent wound in corridors of shells.
Then in the circuit calm of one vast coil,
Its lashings charmed and malice reconciled,
Frosted eyes there were that lifted altars;
And silent answers crept across the stars.
Compass, quadrant and sextant contrive
No farther tides … High in the azure steeps
Monody shall not wake the mariner.
This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps.

 


 

Hart Crane committed suicide by jumping off a boat sailing from Mexico City to New York City, his depression finally overwhelming during a prolonged period of writer’s block. Marsden had been with him in Mexico City and grieved his loss by painting an image filled with symbolism of Crane’s life and poetry.

Hart Crane was not related to Stephen Crane.  Stephen died even younger at age 28 from tuberculosis and by way of hard and happier living. I am not a big fan of Stephen Crane’s parable poems. However, I think if Hart had been able to take more of Stephen’s perspective in dealing with his demons, he might have found a way through his darkest of days and not become a “shadow that one the sea keeps.”

Do you think Hart Crane’s sonnet foreshadow’s his death or was thoughts of suicide part of his subconscious mind, shaping his words as he wrote?


A Man Went Before A Strange God

by Stephen Crane (1871 – 1900)

A man went before a strange God —
The God of many men, sadly wise.
And the deity thundered loudly,
Fat with rage, and puffing.
“Kneel, mortal, and cringe
And grovel and do homage
To My Particularly Sublime Majesty.”

The man fled.

Then the man went to another God —
The God of his inner thoughts.
And this one looked at him
With soft eyes
Lit with infinite comprehension,
And said, “My poor child!”

Tell All The Truth But Tell It Slant

Hart Crane
Hart Crane (1899 – 1932)

Tell All The Truth But Tell It Slant

By Emily Dickinson (1830 – 1886)

Tell all the truth but tell it slant —
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind —


 

One of the pleasures of rhyming poems for the writer and reader alike is that they lend themselves to riddles. I can speak from experience that sometimes the riddles come from deep within the subconscious and aren’t always planned, rather the words feel right and only later release their hidden meanings. Emily Dickinson is a master riddler and given that she never published any of her poetry, she saved her best laughs for herself.

Hart Crane wrote his sonnet that isn’t a sonnet in 1924 when Emily Dickinson was not omnipresent in bookstores and not yet in the pantheon of poets. Some of her poems and correspondence had been published but she had yet to have the kind of impact on modernists and the general public that she has today. To read a much weightier interpretation of Hart Crane’s sonnet below, try Alan Tate’s essay on the subject, he was both a talented poet and a good friend, who took up the cause of heightening the reputation of Hart Crane after his untimely death.

At first glance To Emily Dickinson is a sonnet, but it does not fit a traditional rhyming scheme.  It was written while Hart was having a torrid homosexual love affair with a sailor named Emil Oppfer.  To those of us that like to see riddles, it could be argued there are several hidden clues that this poem is written both to Emily and Emil the first being the similarity of their names. Crane’s romance didn’t last as it seems that his lover lacked the intellectual curiosity and capacity to stimulate Crane’s pursuit of a poetic ideal and their affair dwindled quickly.

Some critics have interpreted the cities of Ormuz and Ophir as another clue that Crane wrote this poem as much to Emil as Emily, as Ophir and Oppfer are perfect homonyms. The city of Ormuz, also known as Hormuz, was part of one of the most important diplomatic missions of the Portuguese empire. Afonso de Alburqurque sent a trove of ruby adorned treasures to Shah Ismail in 1510 to win favor and begin a mutually beneficial partnership. Ophir is a city mentioned in the old Testament multiple times, known for its wealth, gold and wisdom, the implication that it is through wise choices that wealth is attained.

What is Crane saying in the final six lines, traditionally the volta?   It makes more sense in my mind if he is writing it to Emil. Is the flower in Crane’s hand, for his lover, their affair not yet over? The inevitability of its ending plain before him, as he cannot connect to his lover’s remotest mind, and it leaves their relationship cold and penniless without his need for an intellectual bond, leaving nothing left but the crying.  However, the lines also have meaning for Emily, whose work is just coming to light at that time, her flower not yet wilted, and whose solitary mission as a writer was for her benefit, no one else’s. Another poet would ask the question, if her poetry had never come to light, would we be left colder and a treasure lost?

Regardless of who Crane wrote this poem, it’s beautiful, the opening eight lines packed with meaning of what it is to be passionate about another person, about love, about art, about life!  The lines are also insight into Crane’s tortured soul,  his ideas about the role of poetry as a silencer of anxiety, the process of writing meant foremost to enhance the life of the writer, not for financial gain but for the writer’s spiritual or intellectual gain and through their words, leave a trace of their humanity for obscurity of eternity, all depending on the whim of a publisher and fate.


To Emily Dickinson

by Hart Crane

You who desired so much–in vain to ask–
Yet fed you hunger like an endless task,
Dared dignify the labor, bless the quest–
Achieved that stillness ultimately best,

Being, of all, least sought for: Emily, hear!
O sweet, dead Silencer, most suddenly clear
When singing that Eternity possessed
And plundered momently in every breast;

–Truly no flower yet withers in your hand.
The harvest you descried and understand
Needs more than wit to gather, love to bind.
Some reconcilement of remotest mind–

Leaves Ormus rubyless, and Ophir chill.
Else tears heap all within one clay-cold hill

Those Who Know

shutterstock-garvey
Marcus Garvey

 

I am not proud that I am bold
Or proud that I am black.
Color was given me as a gauge
And boldness came with that.

Helene Johnson

The Tired Worker

By Claude McKay

O whisper, O my soul! The afternoon
Is waning into evening, whisper soft!
Peace, O my rebel heart! for soon the moon
From out its misty veil will swing aloft!
Be patient, weary body, soon the night
Will wrap thee gently in her sable sheet,
And with a leaden sigh thou wilt invite
To rest thy tired hands and aching feet.
The wretched day was theirs, the night is mine;
Come tender sleep, and fold me to thy breast.
But what steals out the gray clouds like red wine?
O dawn! O dreaded dawn! O let me rest
Weary my veins, my brain, my life! Have pity!
No! Once again the harsh, the ugly city.


 

Those Who Know

by Marcus Garvey

You may not know, and that is all
That causes you to fail in life;
All men should know, and thus not fall
The victims of the heartless strife.
Know what? Know what is right and wrong,
Know just the things that daily count,
That go to make all life a song,
And cause the wise to climb the mount.

To make man know, is task, indeed,
For some are prone to waste all time:
It’s only few who see the need
To probe and probe, then climb and climb,
The midnight light, the daily grind,
Are tasks that count for real success
In life of those not left behind,
Whom Nature chooses then to bless.

The failing men you meet each day,
Who curse their fate, and damn the rest,
Are just the sleeping ones who play
While others work to reach the best.
All life must be a useful plan,
That calls for daily, serious work-
The work that wrings the best from man-
The work that cowards often shirk.

All honour to the men who know,
By seeking after Nature’s truths:
In wisdom they shall ever grow,
While others hum the awful “blues”
Go now and search for what there is-
The knowledge of the Universe-
Make it yours, as the other, his,
And be as good, but not the worse.

Égalité for All

 

 

To Toussaint L’Ouverture

by William Wordsworth

Toussaint, the most unhappy Man of Men!
Whether the rural Milk-maid by her Cow
Sing in thy hearing, or thou liest now
Alone in some deep dungeon’s earless den,
O miserable Chieftain! where and when
Wilt thou find patience? Yet die not; do thou
Wear rather in thy bonds a cheerful brow:
Though fallen Thyself, never to rise again,
Live, and take comfort. Thou hast left behind
Powers that will work for thee; air, earth, and skies;
There’s not a breathing of the common wind
That will forget thee; thou hast great allies;
Thy friends are exultations, agonies,
And love, and Man’s unconquerable mind.


 

I am currently reading Colson Whitehead’s novel The Underground Railway.  It is a moving fictional account of what the human spirit will endure to achieve freedom.  Whitehead is a brilliant writer; his poetic prose, steeps you in the moral corruption of the South, the barbaric cruelty that powered the wealth that came from indigo, cotton and sugar production.  It is a legacy of the ruthlessness of fellow human beings that casts a shadow all the way to today over the United States.  How do we address the history of atrocities that paved the way for the economic foundation that allowed for the United States to become the world’s wealthiest country? I tire of the willful ignorance, the pretension that American prosperity was built solely upon ingenuity and self determination, without acknowledging that prosperity also came with a legacy of genocide and the immorality of slavery that still bears a responsibility of recognition and forgiveness.

Touissant L’Ouverture is not a historical figure with whom many in the United States are familiar. Touuissant was one of the leaders of a rebellion that parallels our own revolution, when the slaves of then Hispaniola and Saint-Dominique, modern day Haiti, and the Dominican Republic, fought back and won their freedom. The ideas of independence which spawned the French Revolution and the Declaration of Rights of Man in 1789, made the hypocrisy of slavery in French colonies unsustainable and its overthrow inevitable. The idea that all men had unassailable rights that extended beyond skin color was an idea that threw gasoline on what was already an inferno of madness in slavery.  Although Haiti is an impoverished nation today, it as a direct result of a conspiracy of economic retribution by Europe and the United States, a continuation of the tyranny, that was overcome. Haiti (Saint-Dominique) was the richest of all European colonies 250 years ago, with over sixty percent of the coffee imported and forty percent of the sugar consumed in Europe produced there. This immense wealth only made possible by the  cruelty of slave labor.

L’Ouverture was a talented provocateur, orator and military general, who would defeat the armies of France, Great Britain and the United States successfully over a 12 year period, with military casualties in excess of 50,000 men combined from those three nations, before being betrayed by his own lieutenants who thirsted for greater power themselves after the imperialist landowners were overthrown. L’Ouverture was captured, chained and returned to France, tried in court and sentenced to a remote prison to die, not realizing for himself the very freedom he had helped win for an entire nation.

For more information on Touissant L’Ouverture see the link for a documentary below.

The two sonnets I have included span a period of 200 years in their creation.   Each poet, inspired by L’Ouverture’s life.  Wordsworth, although not an abolitionist,  recognized the  courage and moral right of L’Ouverture and Agard, who envisioned a response that is neither rebuttal, nor concurrence with Wordsworth, but a tribute to the humanity of both of men.

How come I didn’t learn about the history of Haiti in high school, when it’s very history is borne of the same noble ideas of equality for all that is the foundation of the American revolution? Is it because we still bear responsibility for a collective failure to reconcile both the heroic and monstrous aspects of United States history.

 


Toussaint L’Ouverture acknowledges Wordsworth’s sonnet “To Toussaint L’Ouverture”

(2006)
John Agard

I have never walked on Westminster Bridge
or had a close-up view of daffodils.
My childhood’s roots are the Haitian hills
where runaway slaves made a freedom pledge
and scarlet poincianas flaunt their scent.
I have never walked on Westminster Bridge
or speak, like you, with Cumbrian accent.
My tongue bridges Europe to Dahomey.
Yet how sweet is the smell of liberty
when human beings share a common garment.
So, thanks brother, for your sonnet’s tribute.
May it resound when the Thames’ text stays mute.
And what better ground than a city’s bridge
for my unchained ghost to trumpet love’s decree.

 

Poem © John Agard, Alternative Anthem: Selected Poems with Live DVD (Bloodaxe Books, 2009)