Summer bedtimes

Lisa and I were just reminiscing a couple of weeks ago about how our parents would maintain our regular bedtimes through the summer when we were little. We commiserated in a shared sense of righteous indignation that we would have to go to bed while it was still light out, and there was no school tomorrow. Our son, John, demonstrated an appropriate level of horror.

When we think of Robert Louis Stevenson, what typically leaps to mind will be Treasure Island or Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, but for generations you would also find in just about every household a copy of A Child’s Garden of Verses, a book of children’s poetry by Stevenson (I guess that makes him the original Shel Silverstein). While the tone of the following poem does not quite catch my conniption fits on summer evenings long ago, it is a delightfully plaintive plea for just a few more minutes of play.

Bed in Summer, by Robert Louis Stevenson

In winter I get up at night
And dress by yellow candle-light.
In summer, quite the other way,
I have to go to bed by day.

I have to go to bed and see
The birds still hopping on the tree,
Or hear the grown-up people’s feet
Still going past me on the street.

And does it not seem hard to you,
When all the sky is clear and blue,
And I should like so much to play,
To have to go to bed by day?

I think this is a fun way to end our week of summer poetry. I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I have!

The Ubiquitous Day Lily of July

Those of you who read this blog on a regular basis know that one of my favorite recently-discovered (for me) poets is David Budbill. He reminds me a little bit of Mary Oliver, though if anything he is even more rooted in the details of everyday life than she, which is saying something.

At age 57, perhaps I have a finer appreciation for that which has been around awhile and has acquired some resiliency and toughness learned through life experience. Like the ubiquitous day lily, I am no longer smooth or fresh or perky. I’ve got gray hair and wrinkles, and I just noticed recently the brown age spots on the backs of my hands (my grandmother used to call them “liver spots.” I like that.).

My favorite line of this poem: “it’s coarse and ordinary and it’s beautiful because it’s ordinary.” I love this idea that the common and the mundane can be both coarse and beautiful. I think of the wind-blown trees I’ve seen for years out on Cape Hatteras. Sometimes they are literally growing horizontally, shaped by a ceaseless force; bent, yet unbroken. Resilient in their weathered beauty.

The Ubiquitous Day Lily of July, by David Budbill

There is an orange day lily that blooms in July and is
everywhere around these parts right now. Common.
Ordinary. It grows in everybody’s dooryard—abandoned
or lived in—along the side of the road, in front of stone walls,
at gas stations and garages, at the entrance to driveways,
anywhere it takes a mind to sprout. You always see them
in clusters, bunches, never by themselves. They propagate
by rhizomes, which is why they are so resilient, and why
you see them in bunches.

There is an orange day lily that blooms in July and is
ubiquitous right now. The roadside mowers mow a lot
of them, but they don’t get them all.

These are not the rare and delicate lemon yellow day lilies
or the other kinds people have around their places. This one
is coarse and ordinary, almost harsh in its weathered beauty,
like an older woman with a tough, worldly-wise and wrinkled
face. There is nothing nubile, smooth or perky about this flower.
It’s not fresh. It’s been around awhile and everybody knows it.

As I said, it’s coarse and ordinary and it’s beautiful because
it’s ordinary. A plant gone wild and therefore become
rugged, indestructible, indomitable, in short: tough, resilient,
like anyone or thing has to be in order to survive.

A final thought: in much of poetry and literature, the mower (i.e., a figure carrying a scythe) represents Death. Think “The Grim Reaper.” Among the many delights of this poem is Budbill’s very modern reimagining of this image: those roadside mowers bringing death to some, but not all, of the ubiquitous day lilies. These motorized grim reapers will never get them all, for this is a plant gone wild, and therefore rugged. Resilient in their ordinary beauty.

Shakespeare for a summer’s day

And now, a little Shakespeare for a summer’s day.

Shakespeare’s Sonnet #18

Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?
Thou art more lovely and more temperate:
Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May,
And summer’s lease hath all too short a date:
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines,
And often is his gold complexion dimmed,
And every fair from fair sometime declines,
By chance or nature’s changing course untrimmed.
But thy eternal summer shall not fade,
Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st,
Nor shall death brag thou wand’rest in his shade,
When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st.
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see,
So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

A quick word about Shakespeare’s sonnet sequence: Shakespeare wrote 154 sonnets. Yeah, that’s a lot. The sonnets have often been subdivided into two groups: sonnets 1-126 (about a lovely young man) and sonnets 127-54 (about a “Dark Lady”). The first group also contains various subdivisions, mostly thematically based. Sonnet 18 is one of the so-called “eternizing” or “immortalizing” sonnets, variations on the theme of the power of writing to preserve that which eventually will fade and die, most notably the beauty of the beloved. One of the things so interesting about these eternizing sonnets is that they end up being as much about the poetry as they are about the beloved. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

(Tangent: because of the literary predominance of William Shakespeare, more nonsense has been written about him than all other writers in English combined. I cannot say how many gallons of ink and forests of trees have been expended in the search for the “true” identities of the handsome youth and the dark lady of these sonnets. I think this is a waste of time for one simple reason: we have no reason to accept unchallenged the premise that the sonnets are autobiographical. Could they be? Sure. Are they, beyond a reasonable doubt? Absolutely not. Further, even if the sonnets were autobiographical and if we could somehow unearth these true identities, what difference would it make? Would we really read the sonnets all that differently if we knew exactly to and about whom they were written? Maybe, but I don’t really think so.)

Sorry. Back to Sonnet #18. One of the things I love most about this sonnet: the answer to the question in line 1 is, ultimately, “not so much.” Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Well, summer is less attractive than the beloved, less temperate, shorter, hotter, more variable, and finite. Summer always ends. The beloved’s summer (the young man at his peak of strength and beauty), on the other hand, shall last forever, preserved in the lines of this poem for all time (or, at least, as long as people live to read it). According to the persona there’s really no comparison. True to form for an immortalizing sonnet, by the end #18 has become as much about itself as the love object. The beloved’s “eternal summer” shall never fade, but only because of the “eternal lines” of this sonnet, the repetition of “eternal” being quite deliberate. The final line is brilliantly constructed, the chiasmus (words repeated in reverse order: lives / this : this / life) emphasizing that, although the beloved inspires the sonnet, the real power lies in this (the sonnet) to bestow eternal life upon the beloved:

So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.

Some folks think Sonnet #18 is Shakespeare’s finest love poem. I disagree. For testaments to the true power of love, I’ll take Sonnet #29 or #116, thank you. But if nothing else, #18 does serve as a powerful reminder this August day to gather ye rosebuds while ye may (Robert Herrick; you can look him up), for summer’s lease has all too short a date.

The Summer Day

Continuing our series of summer poetry, today an extremely well-known poem by a very popular American poet:

The Summer day, by Mary Oliver

Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean–
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down–
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn’t everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?

So much here that it’s hard to know where to start. For me, much of the power of the poem lies in the juxtaposition of minutely-rendered details (like the description of this particular grasshopper) with Big Questions like “who made the world?” The poem begins with three questions and ends with three questions. In between, the persona claims she doesn’t know what a prayer is, but the poem is in fact a prayer: it is a prayer of gratitude, a prayer acknowledging our limited time on this beautiful earth, a prayer meditating upon the Creator, he who made the world (the first three questions remind me of William Blake’s The Tyger: “Did he who made the Lamb make thee?”).

Any poem prominently featuring grass (note how often the word is repeated) will always remind me of lines from Psalm 103:

Our days on the earth are like grass; like wildflowers, we bloom and die.
The wind blows and we are gone–as though we had never been here.
But the love of the Lord remains forever . . . .

Everything dies, and too soon, so learn how to be idle and blessed, how to live deliberately, how to pay attention to creation. Like Mary kneeling at the feet of Jesus, the persona kneels in the grass and then asks “what else should I have done?” How could I have possibly spent my time any better than this, and oh, by the way, what do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?

Summer Poetry

In honor of the season, brace yourself for a week’s worth of summer poetry!

I have deliberately chosen works bursting with images and feelings, so check your analytical abilities at the door, and just let the poems wash over you (note: the oddities of Word Press will not allow me to format this poem as the author intended).

Cherries, by Barbara La Morticella

Fireweed loves the yard
and the fire that conjured it
into the light.

And the scarlet elderberry
loves the old junkpile
it leans against.

The morning glory smothers everything
in an embrace: the fence,
the wood workbench,
the rusted steel.

Here’s a summer day that’s so slow
even the light
moves like honey;

Daisies jump fences
and then just mill around.

Here’s a cherry tree that’s so rich
when it offers its heart to the birds,

every cherry
is a year of cherries.

What struck me about the poem the first time I read it: the names of the flowers (fireweed, elderberry, morning glory, daisies, all of which come loaded with cultural significances), and the emotions they express! Fireweed and elderberry “love,” and morning glory smothers all around it in an embrace. Even more delightful, daisies jump fences and then just mill around. In this Carolina heat, who can’t relate to a summer day so warm and slow that the very light itself moves like golden honey?

Overall, the poem feels to me like an expression of hope and rebirth: fire may destroy, but after grows the fireweed. Steel may rust away, but the morning glory will endure. And just like loaves and fishes, every cherry somehow is a year of cherries.

This is a wonderful poem. Feel free to share your thoughts about it!

Sancho! My armor, my sword!

Today, a delightful poem by one of my favorites of all time, Anna Kamienska:

A Path in the Woods

I don’t trust the truth of memories
because what leaves us
departs forever
There’s only one current of this sacred river
but I still want to remain faithful
to my first astonishments
to recognize as wisdom the child’s wonder
and to carry in myself until the end a path
in the woods of my childhood
dappled with patches of sunlight
to search for it everywhere
in museums in the shade of churches
this path on which I ran unaware
a six-year-old
toward my primary mysterious solitude.

The poem explores complex attitudes toward memories. The persona does not trust them, knows that the past is irretrievable, yet ironically wishes to preserve and carry with her memories of her childhood. Specifically, she wishes she could remain faithful to a child’s wonder and innocence.

One can discern this tension between distrust of memory and yearning for the past embodied in two distinct channels of energy in the poem: the current of the sacred river (time flows in only one direction) and the sun-dappled path through the woods of childhood, which the persona longingly imagines might take her in a direction opposite that of the river. In the end, that particular longing is destined to remain unfulfilled. The path of childhood runs not against the flow of time, but with it.  As a six-year-old, she ran it, unaware that it would lead inevitably to adulthood and her “primary mysterious solitude.” So “A Path in the Woods” also explores disillusion. It begins in mistrust and ends in solitude. The persona’s search to recover the wonder of her first astonishments is almost certainly destined to fail. 

Disillusion. Mistrust. Failure. Is that it? Is that all the poem has to offer? If you think so, you little know this writer! For despite the distrust of memory and the expectation of disillusion, the persona still makes it clear that she wants to retain her sense of childhood wonder, and she will continue to seek it; this stubborn desire, this persistence in the face of likely failure, provides for the poem a redemptive undercurrent.  The persona rummages museums and scours the shade of churches in the hope that what she cannot see truly does exist.  To some, that sounds an awful lot like the definition of faith.  Yes, she mistrusts and yes, she is braced for disappointment, but she writes that “I still want to remain faithful . . . to search for it everywhere” (emphasis added).

Anna Kamienska was born in 1920 in Lublin, Poland, and survived the Nazi occupation of her country. In 1967 her husband, Jan, was diagnosed with cancer and died within months. Kamienska knew disillusion. She knew grief and despair.  And she knew faith. So are you disillusioned today?  Do you despair of the truth?  This astonishing poem acknowledges your anxiety even as it encourages your hope. The quest for the wisdom of childhood wonder may seem crazy these days, quixotic even, but when the world itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies?

Not well? What is illness to the body of a knight-errant? What matter wounds? For each time he falls, he shall rise again and woe to the wicked. Sancho!  My armor, my sword!

The presence of still water

I dedicate this poem today to anyone who is in the midst of fear, anxiety, or uncertainty:

The Peace of Wild Things       Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me
And I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and I am free.

I wrote yesterday that to be human is to be complicated, frustrated, uncertain, inarticulate, passionate, and afraid. In The Peace of Wild Things, Wendell Berry confesses his fear and confronts the despair and “forethought of grief” that continually plague us all.  In yet another poem that features birds (what in the world is it with poets and birds?), Berry suggests the antidote, at least for a time, is to seek the peace of wild things, who cannot imagine the future and therefore cannot worry about it.

For me, that is the key. Stillness and silence can be helpful, of course, but the real trick is to find a place (literal or metaphorical) where you can ground yourself in the present. So much of my time over the last six years has been consumed fretting over what might happen to me. I’ve struggled to find ways to let that go and focus on the beauty of the moment. Take a run at sunrise. Drink a glass of wine at sunset. Go fishing. Yoga works for me (seriously, there’s nothing like tree pose for focusing your attention on the here and now; otherwise, you fall down). Whatever clears your mind so that you can see the light that always waits for you, like Berry’s “day-blind stars.”

Finally, it doesn’t take a Ph.D. in literature to hear in this poem echoes of Psalm 23:

He makes me lie down in green pastures;
He leads me beside still waters;
He restores my soul.

Even if you are not a person of conventional faith, I can’t see these words as anything but darn good advice: lie down in a pasture, or where the wood drake rests.  Come into the presence of still water.  If you are afraid today, seek out that which will restore you today.  In the meantime, the light in me honors the light in you.  Namaste.

What does it mean to be human?

It has been a night of conflagration and death in London and a day of multiple shootings in America. Voices rise from the halls of Congress, calling for unity and emphasizing that at hours like these we are not Republicans or Democrats, we are human beings.

Me? I turn to poetry.

Funny
by Anna Kamienska

What’s it like to be human
Asked the bird

I don’t know really
it’s to be a prisoner in your own skin
but crave infinity
to be captive of a crumb of time
but reach for eternity
to be hopelessly uncertain
and a fool of hope
to be a crystal of frost
and a handful of heat
to breathe in air
to choke without words
to be on fire
and have a nest of ashes
to eat bread
but feast on hungers
to die without love
but love beyond death

That’s funny said the bird
Flying lightly up into the sky

What does it mean to be human? The bird certainly gets more than it bargained for by asking. While its whimsical response and flitting ascent might be read as undercutting the persona’s rather earnest answer, I think it gets to heart of what makes people different.  The bird has no notion of infinity, eternity, hope, metaphor, or a love that transcends death. The human being speaks a language it cannot understand.  So with a dismissive “funny” (Humorous? Strange? Both?), it does what birds do.

To be human is to be complicated, frustrated, uncertain, inarticulate, passionate, and afraid.

Our humanity empowers us to reflect upon our humanity. This quality above all makes us unique on the planet. Our humanity enables us to recognize the humanity of others, others who are just as complicated, frustrated, uncertain, inarticulate, passionate, and afraid as we are.  I wish we could remember this more often, that it didn’t take killing and catastrophe to remind us. In days of political turmoil and unpredictable terrorism, this recollection of our shared humanity may be the only thing that can save us.

My favorite line in the poem is this: to be human is “to be hopelessly uncertain / and a fool of hope.” If there is any line of poetry that describes me these days, that’s the one.

Somebody loves me there

Everyone knows that I love Mary Oliver.  Normally quite grounded in realistic naturalism, it comes as an unexpected pleasure when Oliver does offer a poem that so blatantly seeks to transcend time and dissolve our sense of a specific space. As a result, the familiar, homey central concept of walking home through the woods at night takes on larger metaphorical significance.

This week I have been thinking of departed friends, and so I send this quietly faithful poem to all who are praying today that someone you love will make it home.

There is something
about the snow-laden sky
in winter
in the late afternoon

that brings to the heart elation
and the lovely meaninglessness
of time.
Whenever I get home–whenever–

somebody loves me there.
Meanwhile
I stand in the same dark peace
as any pine tree,

or wander on slowly
like the still, unhurried wind,
waiting,
as for a gift,

for the snow to begin
which it does
at first casually,
then, irrepressibly.

Wherever else I live–
in music, in words,
in the fires of the heart,
I abide just as deeply

in this nameless, indivisible place,
this world,
which is falling apart now,
which is white and wild,

which is faithful beyond all our expressions of faith,
our deepest prayers.
Don’t worry, sooner or later I’ll be home.
Red-cheeked from the roused wind,

I’ll stand in the doorway
stamping my boots and slapping my hands,
my shoulders
covered with stars.

“Walking Home from Oak-Head” by Mary Oliver

NB: the oddities of Word Press will not allow me to format the poem as it appears in the original version.

Desert Places

So as it turns out, Sunday was the birthday of both Robert Frost and Thomas Lanier Williams (most know him better as “Tennessee”).  For all the years I have studied and taught the works of both men, I had never made this connection, so thank you, Writer’s Almanac.

To honor both, belatedly, I share two of my favorite pieces of writing, one from each, which have in common the theme of inescapable loneliness:

Desert Places by Robert Frost

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it—it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is, that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less—
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars—on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

My favorite Tennessee Williams play is “The Glass Menagerie.”  Here, in an excerpt from Tom’s final soliloquy, he describes for his listeners the terror of his own desert place:

“I did not go to the moon, I went much further–for time is the longest distance between two places.  Not long after that I was fired for writing a poem on the lid of a shoebox.  I left Saint Louis. I descended the steps of this fire escape for the last time and followed, from then on, in my father’s footsteps, attempting to find in motion what was lost in space. . . . The cities swept about me like dead leaves, leaves that were brightly colored but torn away from the branches. I would have stopped, but I was pursued by something. It always came upon me unawares, taking me altogether by surprise.  Perhaps it was a familiar piece of music. Perhaps it was only a piece of transparent glass. Perhaps I am walking along a street at night, . . . I pass the lighted window of a shop where perfume is sold. The window is filled with pieces of colored glass, tiny transparent bottles in delicate colors, like bits of a shattered rainbow. Then all at once my sister touches my shoulder.  Oh, Laura, Laura, I tried to leave you behind me, but I am more faithful than I intended to be!  I reach for a cigarette,  I cross the street, I run into the movies or a bar, I buy a drink, I speak to the nearest stranger–anything that can blow your candles out!

For nowadays the world is lit by lightening!  Blow out your candles, Laura–and so goodbye.”

Night falls on the desolation of weeds and stubble, blanketed by swiftly falling snow, while animals smother in their lairs.  Cities sweep by like leaves wind-torn from their branches. Pieces of colored glass evoke bits of a shattered rainbow. While there is certainly no confusing them stylistically, what a gift they both possessed for vivid imagery!

Tennessee Williams died on February 25, 1983 (Lisa’s 21st birthday!).  He won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama twice and a Tony Award for best new play in 1951.  Robert Frost had died twenty years earlier, in 1963, having won the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry four times.  I am so grateful for them both.