What Does It Mean?

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Peter and Navarana Freuchen (1915)

Sonnet

by Edward Arlington Robinson

Oh for a poet—for a beacon bright
To rift this changless glimmer of dead gray;
To spirit back the Muses, long astray,
And flush Parnassus with a newer light;
To put these little sonnet-men to flight
Who fashion, in a shrewd mechanic way,
Songs without souls, that flicker for a day,
To vanish in irrevocable night.
What does it mean, this barren age of ours?
Here are the men, the women, and the flowers,
The seasons, and the sunset, as before.
What does it mean? Shall there not one arise
To wrench one banner from the western skies,
And mark it with his name forevermore?


I have written about the poet Edward Arlington Robinson in an earlier blog post; https://fourteenlines.blog/2018/10/18/trust-busting-not-exactly-at-its-word/ so I won’t recount his history again.   Robinson, though largely forgotten, is interesting to revisit as a poet that was writing during the last great pandemic the 1918 Spanish Flu.  I like his image of little sonnet-men hanging banners to mark the names forevermore of those lost in “this barren age of ours?”

One of the most poignant and simple narratives about the Spanish flu pandemic and about how quickly a life, a marriage and family can be changed by illness during this period was written by an unlikely source – Peter Freuchen, a renowned Danish explorer who alongside Knud Rasmussen completed many first ascents on Greenland and the polar Arctic in Canada.  Freuchen’s wife Navarana, with which he had two children, went from the peak of health to death, in a week in 1919. Navarana was an an accomplished explorer alongside her husband Freuchen on many journey’s.  She was his partner at his home and trading post in Thule, injecting his life with happiness and joy in a harsh environment. The story of their love affair and partnership is told poignantly in his book Arctic Adventure, along with the prolonged depression that followed her death.  You  have to read the book to understand the level of physical fitness that both of them had to tackle the adventures they did together, traveling by dog sled with no support, in the open and how shocking her death is in the book. Freuchen is so stricken with grief even many years later recounting it in his memoir, he writes very little about her death, words inadequate.  It is inconceivable as you read her life story in her husband’s words, that a woman as lovely, athletic and healthy can be stricken with an illness and die in so short a time.  This kind of death is like an accident, a shock wave to loved one’s senses, just like the shock wave being felt around the world again today by too many.

I worry what our neighborhoods and communities are going to be like when this is all done, when we come out of our homes and some level of normalcy is restored.   I fear that after social distancing will come a great social scattering.  I fear small businesses and shop keepers, restaurants and their staff we have taken for granted as part of the fabric of our lives, will suddenly be out of business, and disappear, scattered out of our lives.  Many others with unpaid bills will be forced to relocate, start again.  There will be too many houses on the hill that are shuddered where once we waved to friends and neighbors.   Let us hope for brighter days ahead and to rally around our families, friends and communities.


The House On The Hill

by Edwin Arlington Robinson

They are all gone away,
The House is shut and still,
There is nothing more to say.

Through broken walls and gray
The winds blow bleak and shrill:
They are all gone away.

Nor is there one to-day
To speak them good or ill:
There is nothing more to say.

Why is it then we stray
Around the sunken sill?
They are all gone away,

And our poor fancy-play
For them is wasted skill:
There is nothing more to say.

There is ruin and decay
In the House on the Hill:
They are all gone away,
There is nothing more to say.

The Art Of Losing Isn’t Hard To Master

Bishop Nova Scotia Landscapejpg
Elizabeth Bishop Nova Scotia Landscape

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

Elizabeth Bishop

One Art

by Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979)

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

—Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.


One Art is a villanelle.   Villanelle’s are kissing cousins to sonnets.  Like sonnets they are highly structured poems with precise rhyming schemes and line arrangements, but with less emphasis on syllable count per line while always being 19 lines.  Villanelle’s have been around since the 1600’s but the most famous villanelles are from the 20th century, including;  Dylan Thomas’ Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night, Sylvia Plath’s Mad Girl Love Story, W. H. Auden’s If I Could Tell You and Edwin Arlington Robinson’s The House On The Hill.  I have written a couple of villanelle’s in all their goofy complexity.  They are kind of fun because they take on a life of their own about half way through the writing process.  If you have never tried writing one, give it a go and let the rhyme and structure guide the process and see what your subconscious has been hiding from you. If you have written a villanelle and would like to share it, send it to Fourteenlines10@gmail.com and I’ll post it along with one of my own.

Elizabeth Bishop had the luxury of wealth throughout her lifetime and it afforded her the opportunity to go to Vassar, then travel the world, write poetry and paint. An independent woman of means, she often painted and wrote about subjects that were more aligned with the working class. Bishop understood strife and loss, both of her parents having died when she was very young.  She invested her time well in pursuit of her art, her poetry critically acclaimed, winning the Pulitzer in 1956.

We are adaptable as a species, if at a different rate and to a different extent as individuals. Change and loss is something that is integral to the human experience.  I was watching the movie A Little Chaos, and Kate Winslet’s pivotal moment in the film is when she addresses the King with  a metaphor, the wise rose, as a way of reminding the King about the beauty of his aging lovers. She give’s the King a rose and tells him the rose is oblivious to all the stages of its life, wilting, dropping its petals and forming a seed head to foster the next generation. She shifts the King’s perspective by saying it is only the gardener who tends the rose that morns its fading beauty.  Many of us are mourning the things we are losing or have lost.   Its good to remember loss is part of our nature too, and even faded  or remembered beauty is beautiful, as well.

 


Breakfast Song

by Elizabeth Bishop

My love, my saving grace,
your eyes are awfully blue.
I kiss your funny face,
your coffee-flavored mouth.
Last night I slept with you.
Today I love you so
how can I bear to go
(as soon I must, I know)
to bed with ugly death
in that cold, filthy place,
to sleep there without you,
without the easy breath
and nightlong, limblong warmth
I’ve grown accustomed to?
—Nobody wants to die;
tell me it is a lie!
But no, I know it’s true.
It’s just the common case;
there’s nothing one can do.
My love, my saving grace,
your eyes are awfully blue
early and instant blue.