As if the Sea should part
And show a further Sea —
And that — a further — and the Three
But a presumption be —
Of Periods of Seas —
Unvisited of Shores —
Themselves the Verge of Seas to be —
Eternity — is Those —
I aspire to be dubbed an idler. It sounds like a knighthood for sonnet writers. The Beneficent Society of Idlers strikes a nice cord, maybe with a large pennant on a red velvet cord for worthy recipients. Great unutterable thoughts that somehow are still uttered is what makes poetry a glue that connects people across time and place. Dickinson is the master of the unutterable and letting unutterances exist between the words and yet be completely understood despite each of our understandings different.
Poetry is not a user manual. It is not meant to be literal or complete. The best of it it is a glimpse into another’s inner life, hopes, dreams and miseries. And if the Sea should part and understanding is lying gleaming in the sand, don’t rush in too quick to pick it up. Let the Sea return to equilibrium and let it soak for a bit. And then dive down again to revel in your discoveries, holding your breath with excitement.
How best to hold a Master’s mastered light
that flickers deep in pearl, a milklit face?
His paintings stun: complex perspectives right,
well-framed, with every fold and thread in place.
Over and over, within this structured space,
he nails the tough proportions, deftly blocks
the naked eye’s distortions with such grace
of form that every stricture clicks and locks.
Like him, I shoot life through a dovetailed box,
a darkened room. Containment is the key
to breaking through. I watch what it unlocks
inside the mirror’s polished glass, and see
if like the great, meticulous Vermeer,
a blooming world pours through my pinhole, clear.
Camera obscura is the optical phenomenon that occurs when an image at the other side of a screen is projected through a small hole and appears as reversed and inverted on a surface opposite the opening. This discovery led to the development of photography. It is also an apt metaphor for how the world feels six months into the pandemic. I still see the world around me, but it appears smaller and flipped upside down. There is a wall between me and that world and much less light is shining in.
Yesterday, the young woman at the Trader Joe’s checkout jumped away from me as I approached her register and with fright in her voice commanded I stand exactly on the watermelon on the floor in front of the growing fortress-like plexi-glass barrier that separated us. I warily complied exactly as commanded, all pleasantries of human interaction obliterated by caution and safety, no smiles exchanged through our face masks, her eyes continuously downcast, a bit too intensely ringing up my modest purchase, never once looking at me, tangible her fear of being in the same space that I am in. I get it. I am not sure how I would handle a cashier job these days. I too would probably suffer from moments of the ebbie-jeebies that I was observing. It’s not that I had violated her six foot barrier, it was that it felt like she wanted a 30 foot barrier in that moment. I made a half-hearted attempt at fake pleasantries but it seemed to make the mood even more somber. It wasn’t her fault. In the end it made me feel like shopping at Trader Joe’s was my mistake. My local Cub Food let’s me check out all on own, maintaining this false notion we have that our social isolation is intact. It’s depressing that when I venture out for my one interaction with the world in a day and the world jumps back from me in alarm, runs away from me in fear, even if that destination has the best gluten-free bagels in town.
I long to get out of this box of COVID-19, end the cues in lines in front of everywhere I go, this social distancing which is another way of feeling social ostracism. I long to remove the masks and cut a giant hole in the universe and walk back into the world as I formerly knew it. Go to a baseball game, sit surrounded by strangers and drink a beer. I know it can’t be done, that world may never exist again. I fear that the future will be so completely foreign to the world that I had grown accustomed that everything will feel upside down forever and I will be the one much smaller than before, inverted. I feel myself moving along this new foreign, unpaved path, looking for hope, looking for ways to make my world big again, even if these days its only in the pages of a book or in the line of a poem, where an adventure may still await.
The Camera Obscura
by John Addington Symonds
Inside the skull the wakeful brain,
Attuned at birth to joy and pain,
Dwells for a lifetime; even as one
Who in a closed tower sees the sun
Cast faint-hued shadows, dim or clear,
Upon the darkened disc: now near,
Now far, they flit; while he, within,
Surveys the world he may not win:
Whate’er he sees, he notes; for nought
Escapes the net of living thought;
And what he notes, he tells again
To last and build the brains of men.
Shades are we; and of shades we weave
A trifling pleasant make-believe;
Then pass into the shadowy night,
Where formless shades blindfold the light
Some girl serene, some girl whose being is
Affection, and in love with natural things,
In whom like summer like a choir sings,
Yet with a statue’s white celebrities
Although the city falls. Golden and sleek,
Spontaneous and strong, quickend and one
To wake for joy, the mother of a son
Who climbs with conscious laughter every peak!
But I know well the party rush, the black
Rapids of feeling falling tot a bride,
Trapped in the present and the body’s lack,
Long reasons’s new hat quickly thrown aside,
And soon a child rising and toiling like me
With the dark accidents of strange identity.
At a Solemn Musick. (Recorded at the National Poetry Festival, 1962)
O City, City
by Delmore Schwartz
To live between terms, to live where death
has his loud picture in the subway ride,
Being amid six million souls, their breath
An empty song suppressed on every side,
Where the sliding auto’s catastrophe
Is a gust past the curb, where numb and high
The office building rises to its tyranny,
Is our anguished diminution until we die.
Whence, if ever, shall come the actuality
Of a voice speaking the mind’s knowing,
The sunlight bright on the green windowshade,
And the self articulate, affectionate, and flowing,
Ease, warmth, light, the utter showing,
When in the white bed all things are made.
Not green as new weeds or crushed juniper,
but a toxic and unearthly green, meet
for inking angel wings, made from copper sheets
treated with vapors of wine or vinegar,
left to oxidize for the calligrapher.
When it’s done, he’ll cover calfskin with a fleet
of knotted beasts in caustic green that eats
the page and grieves the paleographer.
There’s copper in my brain, my heart of hearts;
in my blood, an essential mineral.
Too much is poison. Too much air imparts
sickness to the script—once begun, eternal,
its words forever grass in drought. Nor departs
my grief, green and corrosive as a gospel.
by Melissa Range
Called crimson, called vermilion—“little worm”
in both the Persian and the Latin, red
eggs for the carmine dye, the insect’s brood
crushed stillborn from her dried body, a-swarm
in a bath of oak ash lye and alum to form
the pigment the Germans called Saint John’s Blood—
the saint who picked brittle locusts for food,
whose blood became the germ of a crimson storm.
Christ of the pierced thorax and worm-red cloak,
I read your death was once for all, but it’s not true:
your kings and bishops command a book,
a beheading, blood for blood, the perfect hue;
thus I, the worm, the Baptist, and the scarlet oak
see all things on God’s earth must die for you.
The charm of riding eastward through Wyoming
Is not so much the grandeur and the view
As that it is an exercise in homing
And that my fellow passenger is you.
In fourteen years of this our strange excursion
The scenic points of love have not grown stale
For that my mind in yours has found the diversion
And in your heart my heart could never fail.
It’s fourteen years today today since we began it–
This sonnet crowds a year in every line–
Love were an idle drudge if time outran it
And time were stopped indeed were you not mine.
The rails go on together toward the sky
Even (the saying goes) as you and I.
by E. B. White
The spider, dropping down from twig,
Unwinds a thread of her devising:
A thin, premeditated rig
To use in rising.
And all the journey down through space,
In cool descent, and loyal-hearted,
She builds a ladder to the place
From which she started.
Thus I, gone forth, as spiders do,
In spider’s web a truth discerning,
Attach one silken strand to you
For my returning
Youth and Age
by E. B. White
This is what youth must figure out:
Girls, love, and living.
The having, the not having,
The spending and giving,
And the melancholy time of not knowing.
This is what age must learn about:
The ABC of dying.
The going, yet not going,
The loving and leaving,
And the unbearable knowing and knowing.
The fog has risen from the sea and crowned
The dark, untrodden summits of the coast,
Where roams a voice, in canyons uttermost,
From midnight waters vibrant and profound.
High on each granite altar dies the sound,
Deep as the trampling of an armored host,
Lone as the lamentation of a ghost,
Sad as the diapason of the drowned.
The mountain seems no more a soulless thing,
But rather as a shape of ancient fear,
In darkness and the winds of Chaos born
Amid the lordless heavens’ thundering-
A Presence crouched, enormous and austere,
Before whose feet the mighty waters mourn.
Mount Blanc is the tallest mountain in Europe, its at peak 15,700 feet. It is also Europe and the world’s most deadly mountain. Relatively accessible from Italy and France, the steep slopes and beauty of Mount Blanc are a siren song to adventurers both summer and winter. Danger is part of adventure and on average 30 people a year lose their lives to miscalculations of weather, terrain or bad luck on its slopes.
The number of poems written about Mount Blanc is staggering. Poets as well as adventurers have been inspired by its beauty and the surrounding mountain villages for centuries. There are things in nature that are inherent to our imaginations, even beyond our imaginations. Mountains inspire awe. If you have ever hiked to the summit of a mountain, you know that distances can be misleading, what looks like it should be relatively close, can be miles and miles in the distance anda much farther to climb or hike than you imagined. Its why standing at the top of a summit where you can see a 360 degree view of the mountains tops is worth the effort.
The past few decades have seen an explosion in action sports, with inventions as wild and dangerous as men’s imaginations can come up with. Extreme sports is not exclusive to men, but men tend to push the boundaries in greater numbers in ever greater searches of adrenaline. Here’s a couple of video’s that will give you a perspective of the scale of Mount Blanc and its beauty along with what must be an incredible rush of gliding down its steep slopes.
by George Stirling
The everlasting universe of things
Flows through the mind, and rolls its rapid waves,
Now dark—now glittering—now reflecting gloom—
Now lending splendour, where from secret springs
The source of human thought its tribute brings
Of waters—with a sound but half its own,
Such as a feeble brook will oft assume,
In the wild woods, among the mountains lone,
Where waterfalls around it leap for ever,
Where woods and winds contend, and a vast river
Over its rocks ceaselessly bursts and raves.
Mont Blanc yet gleams on high:—the power is there,
The still and solemn power of many sights,
And many sounds, and much of life and death.
In the calm darkness of the moonless nights,
In the lone glare of day, the snows descend
Upon that Mountain; none beholds them there,
Nor when the flakes burn in the sinking sun,
Or the star-beams dart through them. Winds contend
Silently there, and heap the snow with breath
Rapid and strong, but silently! Its home
The voiceless lightning in these solitudes
Keeps innocently, and like vapour broods
Over the snow. The secret Strength of things
Which governs thought, and to the infinite dome
Of Heaven is as a law, inhabits thee!
And what were thou, and earth, and stars, and sea,
If to the human mind’s imaginings
Silence and solitude were vacancy?
A power is on the earth and in the air
From which the vital spirit shrinks afraid,
And shelters him, in nooks of deepest shade,
From the hot steam and from the fiery glare.
Look forth upon the earth–her thousand plants
Are smitten; even the dark sun-loving maize
Faints in the field beneath the torrid blaze;
The herd beside the shaded fountain pants;
For life is driven from all the landscape brown;
The bird has sought his tree, the snake his den,
The trout floats dead in the hot stream, and men
Drop by the sun-stroke in the populous town;
As if the Day of Fire had dawned, and sent
Its deadly breath into the firmament.
William Cullen Bryant was a worthy tradesman in the business of letters as a journalist and writer, carving out a small place in American Literature. Not as celebrated or innovative as other poets of his generation like Wordsworth or Whitman, Bryant toiled at his craft. He worked as a journalist, then editor, then part owner of the New York Evening Post, a paper founded by Alexander Hamilton. Bryant was a long time advocate for organized labor and a consistent critic of Thomas Jefferson, he would go on to be a fierce supporter of Abraham Lincoln and a progressive voice for change.
Bryant’s poetry is largely focused on the beauty of nature and our appreciation of our place in the natural world. I appreciate his rhyming schemes and word play, use of rhythm and the workmanship in some of his shorter poems. Thanatoposis, his most famous poem, feels a bit outdated, but there are still some beautiful lines. Here’s a clever bit of animation to bring it to life.
I Broke The Spell That Held Me Long
by William Cullen Bryant
I broke the spell that held me long,
The dear, dear witchery of song.
I said, the poet’s idle lore
Shall waste my prime of years no more,
For Poetry, though heavenly born,
Consorts with poverty and scorn.
I broke the spell–nor deemed its power
Could fetter me another hour.
Ah, thoughtless! how could I forget
Its causes were around me yet?
For wheresoe’er I looked, the while,
Was Nature’s everlasting smile.
Still came and lingered on my sight
Of flowers and streams the bloom and light,
And glory of the stars and sun; –
And these and poetry are one.
They, ere the world had held me long,
Recalled me to the love of song.
Dear native Brook! wild Streamlet of the West!
How many various-fated years have past,
What happy and what mournful hours, since last
I skimm’d the smooth thin stone along thy breast,
Numbering its light leaps! yet so deep imprest
Sink the sweet scenes of childhood, that mine eyes
I never shut amid the sunny ray,
But straight with all their tints thy waters rise,
Thy crossing plank, thy marge with willows grey,
And bedded sand that vein’d with various dyes
Gleam’d through thy bright transparence! On my way,
Visions of Childhood! oft have ye beguil’d
Lone manhood’s cares, yet waking fondest sighs:
Ah! that once more I were a careless Child.
A canoe has a bi-polar personality depending on how many people are in it, the cooperative nature of those paddling it and the amount of wind you are contending with and the direction from which it is blowing. It can be the most gentle cooperative vessel ever invented, or it can be the most unruly of crafts. In short a canoe is not for amateurs in rough, cold waters and rapids and yet it can be the best of all possible boats in the hands of competent paddlers and conditions.
Most canoes are not designed to be paddled by one person, except on those mornings and evenings in which there is not even a puff of wind and the lake or stream is a mirror. One person seated in the back of a canoe lifts the bow out of the water enough that the keel lacks some of its grip and it makes it easily influenced by even the slightest wind.
Enough about describing canoes, get out there and experience a canoe! And if you are fortunate to tip it over, while wearing your life jacket, be sure to enjoy the adventure of getting it back to shore, the water bailed out and a lesson learned about what you don’t want to do the next time. There is a certain zen like quality to paddling a canoe. Each person must keep their weight centered over the keel and relaxed. You have to keep your weight low, you need to slow down and be centered and present. As children at camp we were taught how to deal with a tipped canoe by tipping them on purpose in water close to shore under supervision and with life jackets on. I recommend if you have children or teenagers or adults who are first time in a canoe that you teach them those skills sometime in shallow warm summer waters, before attempting cold, fast moving water where you don’t want to tip, and if you do, everyone knows what to do. But its tippiness is what is part of the fun of a canoe, you have to treat it with respect, know its capability, acquire skill and agility with a pinch of bravery required.
I have been fortunate to canoe upon and alongside river otters several times in my life. A huge thrill and a connection with the wilderness that takes your breath away. Coleridge’s poem brings back pleasant memories. Since in the last blog entry I mentioned my fondness for the short film Paddle To The Sea, I thought I would share a link and make it easy to find if you remember it as well from 3rd grade.
The poem The Canoe Speaks by Stevenson below is one of those examples of rhyming poetry where the poet intentionally drops the rhyme for stunning emphasis and clarity at the end. Some of my best sonnets that I have written drop the rhyme in a spot because the exact word I want doesn’t fit the rhyming scheme and because it improved the flow and meaning of the poem. Remember rules are made to be broken with poetry. Dickinson is a master of going in and out of rhyme with devastating precision. Do you have a favorite poem that leaves a lasting impression because it is unpredictably changes course, like an eddy in a river in a canoe where the next stanza or couplet is unexpectedly different?
The Canoe Speaks
by Robert Louis Stevenson
On the great streams the ships may go
About men’s business to and fro.
But I, the egg-shell pinnace, sleep
On crystal waters ankle-deep:
I, whose diminutive design,
Of sweeter cedar, pithier pine,
Is fashioned on so frail a mould,
A hand may launch, a hand withhold:
I, rather, with the leaping trout
Wind, among lilies, in and out;
I, the unnamed, inviolate,
Green, rustic rivers, navigate;
My dripping paddle scarcely shakes
The berry in the bramble-brakes;
Still forth on my green way I wend
Beside the cottage garden-end;
And by the nested angler fare,
And take the lovers unaware.
By willow wood and water-wheel
Speedily fleets my touching keel;
By all retired and shady spots
Where prosper dim forget-me-nots;
By meadows where at afternoon
The growing maidens tropp in June
To loose their girldes on the grass.
Ah! speedier than before the glass
The backward toilet goes; and swift
As swallows quiver, robe and shift,
And the rough country stockings lie
Around each young divinity
When, following the recondite brook,
Sudden upon this scene I look.
And light with unfamiliar face
On chaste Diana’s bathing-place,
Loud ring the hills about and all
The shallows are abandoned.
She is as in a field a silken tent
At midday when the sunny summer breeze
Has dried the dew and all its ropes relent,
So that in guys it gently sways at ease,
And its supporting central cedar pole,
That is its pinnacle to heavenward
And signifies the sureness of the soul,
Seems to owe naught to any single cord,
But strictly held by none, is loosely bound
By countless silken ties of love and thought
To every thing on earth the compass round,
And only by one’s going slightly taut
In the capriciousness of summer air
Is of the slightlest bondage made aware.
I have used this time at home to continue the purge of belongings I began 10 years ago. There is something healthy about going from 3,000 square feet to 710 square feet of living space. It puts a premium on prioritizing what belongings have value. In cleaning out my garage this week, I came across the REI six man tent that was my car camp tent when my children were small. It accompanied us on many adventures. It is now 30 years old and despite multiple attempts at re-water proofing the fly, the last few times it has been used it has proven disappointing in its ability to function as a tent should. It also is bigger than I need now and weighs more than I want for hiking, so I decided it was time to part ways. I ran a CL list ad basically giving it away to a family as a kid fort in the back yard, to serve as some outdoor summer fun. I had an immediate response and it has found a better home where I hope it can create for another child some of the memories I have of the family tent as a fort in the back yard for daytime adventures and the occasional fair weather sleep over with a friend.
It is surprising to me there are not more poems written with tents as a metaphor for something grand and mystical. But then I have to remind myself that those of us that have been lucky enough to grow up with tents as part of their summer adventures are not in the majority, too many families either weren’t capable of vacations or parents ideas of vacations did not include biting insects, sand in your underwear and burned hot dogs over a fire. I am so grateful my parents did.
Do you have a favorite memory regarding a tent? What’s happened to your family tent? Is it still serviceable? Do you have plans to use it or is it time to let it find a new home and another purpose?
by Naomi Shihab Nye – 1952
When did hordes of sentences start beginning with So?
As if everything were always pending,
leaning on what came before.
What can you expect?
Loneliness everywhere, entertained or kept in storage.
So you felt anxious to be alone.
Easier to hear, explore a city, room,
mound of hours, no one walking beside you.
Talking to self endlessly, but mostly listening.
This would not be strange.
It would be the tent you slept in.
Waking calmly inside whatever
you had to do would be freedom.
It would be your country.
The men in front of me had whole acres
in their eyes. I could feel them cross, recross each day.
Memory, stitched. History, soothed.
What we do or might prefer to do. Have done.
How we got here. Telling ourselves a story
till it’s compact enough to bear.
Passing the walls, wearing the sky,
the slight bow and rising of trees.
Everything ceaselessly holding us close.
So we are accompanied.
Never cast out without a line of language to reel us back.
That is what happened, how I got here.
So maybe. One way anyway.
A story was sewn, seed sown,
this was what patriotism meant to me—
to be at home inside my own head long enough
to accept its infinite freedom
and move forward anywhere, to mysteries coming.
Even at night in a desert, temperatures plummet,
billowing tent flaps murmur to one other.
“When the wound is deep, the healing is heroic. Suffering and ascendance require the same work.”
― Terrance Hayes, American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin
Snow For Wallace Stevens
by Terrance Hayes
No one living a snowed-in life
can sleep without a blindfold.
Light is the lion that comes down to drink.
I know tink and tank and tunk-a-tunk-tunk
holds nearly the same sound as a bottle.
Drink and drank and drunk-a-drunk-drunk,
Light is the lion that comes down.
This song is for the wise man who avenges
by building his city in snow.
I know what he said in his poem.
“Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery.”
How, with pipes of winter
lining his cognition, does someone learn
to bring a sentence to its knees?
Who is not more than his limitations,
who is not the blood in a wine barrel
and the wine as well? I too, having lost faith
in language have placed my faith in language.
Thus, I have a capacity for love without
forgiveness. This song is for my foe,
the clean shaven, gray-suited, gray patron
of Hartford, the emperor of whiteness
blue as a body made of snow.
Is it not true that if we were to assemble enough of our life’s work and thoughts in one place, and dug through it carefully, we would find it would be an erector set of contradictions, or at least an odd creation with parts of it out of place? Are we to throw out everything a person creates because the worst of it is worse than we expect of them or that they expect of themselves? Is that not the nature of being human? Maybe it’s impossible to walk a straight line on a round planet forever twirling endlessly in two trajectories, one a slanted axis; the very nature of it dizzying, causing us to lose our balance once in a while and go akimbo.
One of the purposes of art is to hold ourselves and other artist’s accountable, for their genius and their failures or limitations. One of the sins of white privilege, particularly in the realm of poetry, is the reverence placed on the tradition of affluent white men of means who are held up as the pantheon of poetic tradition, without recognizing their legacy of poetry is tainted by the ease with which they found a publisher and an audience, the ease they were afforded recognition, while there were equally as many gifted voices of people of color that went unnoticed, unrewarded, unpublished, unheard. We best be careful as we venture back in literature to not let the whiteness of the page on which the words are set blind us to the whiteness of the privilege of the writer’s life that for many have persisted into the present.
Terrance Hayes has a knack for connecting the present to the past, for wading in the pools of literary history, feeling their swirling eddy’s, but then making the current his own. I love his lines; “I too have lost faith in language have placed my faith in language. Thus, I have a capacity for love without forgiveness.” These are the words at the core of how we might find a path to heal as a nation. Have we the people, lost faith in the words of our founding fathers? Words like “freedom” and “justice for all“? Maybe, if we can as a nation, hold on to love, we’ll find our way forward, even if the sins committed by our founders, in allowing slavery on these shores, and institutionalizing racism by that very act and suppression of rights under Jim Crow and segregation will never deserve forgiveness.
The Brave Man
By Wallace Stevens
The sun, that brave man,
Comes through boughs that lie in wait,
That brave man.
Green and gloomy eyes
In dark forms of the grass
The good stars,
Pale helms and spiky spurs,
Fears of my bed,
Fears of life and fears of death,
That brave man comes up
From below and walks without meditation,
That brave man.