Tuesday, November 30, 2010
(Indian Church, 1929 by Emily Carr,
1871-1945, Canadian painter and writer
whose work celebrates the cultures of
the Indians of the Pacific Northwest)
We now conclude the poems for November, which contemplated the old drama that, in the words of Linda Pastan, takes place this month:
the disappearance of the leaves,
this seeming death
of the landscape
“If the only prayer you ever said in your whole life was ‘Thank you,’ that would suffice.” ~ Meister Eckhart (1260?-1327?), German philosopher, theologian, and mystic
Whatever what is is is what I want.
Only that. But that.
~ Galway Kinnell, born 1927, American poet and translator
Monday, November 29, 2010
(Bell by Ann Lovell Rowe, photograph on
note cards sold by the Benedictine Abbey
of Christ in the Desert, Abiquiu, NM)
In these famous lines, the poet looks beyond death.
Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so;
For those, whom thou think’st thou dost overthrow,
Die not, poor Death, nor yet canst thou kill me.
From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
Much pleasure, then from thee much more must flow,
And soonest our best men with thee do go,
Rest of their bones, and soul’s delivery.
Thou art slave to Fate, Chance, kings, and desperate men,
And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
And better than thy stroke; why swell’st thou then?
One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
And Death shall be no more; Death, thou shalt die.
~ John Donne (1572-1631), the finest of the English Metaphysical poets, lyric poets whose work displayed a subtlety of thought and fanciful imagery and often used one surprising metaphor to bring together two very different ideas
Sunday, November 28, 2010
(White Lilacs by Édouard Manet, 1832-1883,
French Realist and Impressionist painter)
Happiness, according to Aristotle, is the fulfillment of a thing’s nature.
It even comes “to the dog chewing a sock,” says the poet.
There's no accounting for happiness,
or the way it turns up like a prodigal
who comes back to the dust at your feet
having squandered a fortune far away.
And how can you not forgive?
You make a feast in honor of what
was lost, and take from its place the finest
garment, which you saved for an occasion
you could not imagine, and you weep night and day
to know that you were not abandoned,
that happiness saved its most extreme form
for you alone.
No, happiness is the uncle you never
knew about, who flies a single-engine plane
onto the grassy landing strip, hitchhikes
into town, and inquires at every door
until he finds you asleep midafternoon
as you so often are during the unmerciful
hours of your despair.
It comes to the monk in his cell.
It comes to the woman sweeping the street
with a birch broom, to the child
whose mother has passed out from drink.
It comes to the lover, to the dog chewing
a sock, to the pusher, to the basket maker,
and the clerk stacking cans of carrots
in the night.
It even comes to the boulder
in the perpetual shade of pine barrens,
to rain falling on the open sea,
to the wineglass, weary of holding wine.
~ Jane Kenyon (1947-1995), American poet
Saturday, November 27, 2010
(Rose by Pierre-Joseph Redouté, 1759-1840,
French botanist and watercolorist)
from ODE ON ST. CECILIA’S DAY
Music the fiercest grief can charm,
And fate’s severest rage disarm;
Music can soften pain to ease,
And make despair and madness please,
Our joys below it can improve,
And antedate the bliss above.
~ Alexander Pope (1688-1744), English poet
Earlier this month, the classical composer Henryk Górecki died in Katowice, Poland. He was 76 years old.
His best-known and most popular composition is the hauntingly beautiful Symphony No. 3 (1976) or Symphony of Sorrowful Songs, Opus 36 for soprano and orchestra. The version featuring soprano Dawn Upshaw and the London Sinfonietta conducted by David Zinman has sold more than one million copies since it was introduced in 1992.
The Symphony is made up of three parts, the first movement set to a mid-fifteenth-century sacred lamentation of the Mater Dolorosa or Sorrowful Mother at the foot of Christ on the Cross:
My son, my chosen and beloved,
Share your wounds with your mother
And because, dear son, I have always carried you in my heart,
And always served you faithfully,
Speak to your mother, to make her happy,
Although you are already leaving me, my cherished hope.
The lyrics of the second movement repeat the prayer scratched on the wall of a cell in the prison of Zakopane, by a Polish prisoner of the Gestapo:
Oh, Mamma, do not weep.
Most chaste Queen of Heaven,
protect me always.
[signed] Helena Wanda Blazusiak, 18 years old, imprisoned since 25. IX. 44
The third movement is based on a Polish folk song of a mother’s grieving over the death of her son in the Silesian uprising against the Germans in the 1920s:
Where has he gone,
My dearest son?
Perhaps during the uprising
The cruel enemy killed him.
Ah, you bad people
In the name of God, the most Holy,
Tell me, why did you kill
Will I have his support
Even if I cry
My old eyes out.
Were my bitter tears
To create another River Oder
They would not restore to life
He lies in his grave
And I know not where
Though I keep asking people
Perhaps the poor child
Lies in a rough ditch
And instead he could be
Lying in his warm bed.
Oh, sing for him,
God’s little song-birds,
Since his mother
Cannot find him.
And you, God’s little flowers,
May you blossom all around
So that my son
May sleep happily.
To listen to a performance of the second movement by soprano Isabel Bayrakdaraian and the Sinfonietta Cracovia conducted by John Axelrod, please click on this link (you may have to cut and paste):
Friday, November 26, 2010
(The Edge of the Soupoi River by Michel Kotchoubey,
1816-1864, Russian photographer )
Most of every-day life is mundane but there are fleeting moments when we glimpse the possibility that we may be more than merely mortal.
A FEW WORDS ON THE SOUL
We have a soul at times.
No one’s got it non-stop,
Day after day,
year after year
may pass without it.
it will settle for awhile
only in childhood’s fears and raptures.
Sometimes only in astonishment
that we are old.
It rarely lends a hand
in uphill tasks,
like moving furniture,
or lifting luggage,
or going miles in shoes that pinch.
It usually steps out
whenever meat needs chopping
or forms have to be filled.
For every thousand conversations
it participates in one,
if even that,
since it prefers silence.
Just when our body goes from ache to pain,
it slips off-duty.
it doesn’t like seeing us in crowds,
our hustling for a dubious advantage
and creaky machinations make it sick.
Joy and sorrow
aren’t two different feelings for it.
It attends us
only when the two are joined.
We can count on it
when we’re sure of nothing
and curious about everything.
Among the material objects
it favors clocks with pendulums
and mirrors, which keep on working
even when no one is looking.
It won’t say where it comes from
or when it’s taking off again,
though it’s clearly expecting such questions.
We need it
it needs us
for some reason too.
~ Wislawa Szymborska, born 1923, Polish poet and winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1996
Thursday, November 25, 2010
(Mario Gomez, at 63 the eldest of the 33 Chilean miners
recently trapped underground for 69 days, kneels in
thanksgiving for being rescued)
from PSALM 94 (95)
Come, let us sing joyfully to the Lord;
let us acclaim the Rock of our Salvation.
Let us greet him with thanksgiving;
let us joyfully sing psalms to him,
For the Lord is a great God,
and a great king above all gods;
In his hands are the depths of the earth,
and the tops of the mountains are his.
The last two lines of this verse of the psalm were printed on the backs of the t-shirts that all the miners wore during their rescue.
Wednesday, November 24, 2010
(Monument to Sir William Dyer in
Colmworth Church, Bedfordshire,
This poem is the second of two verses engraved on a plaque on the alabaster and marble monument pictured above. The memorial was erected in 1641 by his widow, Lady Catherine Dyer.
MY DEAREST DUST
My dearest dust, could not thy hasty day
Afford thy drowzy patience leave to stay
One hower longer: so that we might either
Sate up, or gone to bed together?
But since thy finisht labor hath possest
Thy weary limbs with early rest,
Enjoy it sweetly: and thy widdowe bride
Shall soone repose her by thy slumbering side,
Whose business, now, is only to prepare
My nightly dress, and call to prayre:
Mine eyes wax heavy and ye day growes old.
The dew falls thick, my beloved growes cold.
Draw, draw ye closed curtaynes: and make room:
My dear, my dearest dust; I come, I come.
~ Lady Catherine Dyer (1600?-1654)
Tuesday, November 23, 2010
(Ruins of the eleventh-century Reefert Church, with
its cross and graves, Glendalough, Ireland; the name
comes from Righ Fearta, “royal burial place.”)
And another regrettable thing about death
is the ceasing of your own brand of magic
which took a whole life to develop and market —
the quips, the witticisms, the slant
adjusted to a few, those loved ones nearest
the lip of the stage, their soft faces blanched
in the footlight glow, their laughter close to tears,
their tears confused with their diamond earrings,
their warm pooled breath in and out with your heartbeat,
their response and your performance twinned.
The jokes over the phone. The memories packed
In the rapid-access file. The whole act.
Who will do it again? That’s it: no one;
imitators and descendants aren’t the same.
~ John Updike (1932-2009), American poet, novelist, and critic
Monday, November 22, 2010
(Fields of Grain As Seen from a Train by Arthur Dove,
1880-1944, American Modernist painter)
“For the mind expects, attends, and remembers: what it expects passes, by way of what it attends to, into what it remembers. Would anyone deny that the future is as yet not existent? But in the mind there is already an expectation of the future. Would anyone deny that the past no longer exists? Yet still there is in the mind a memory of the past. Would anyone deny that the present time lacks extension, since it is but a point that passes on? Yet the attention endures, and by it that which is to be, passes on its way to being no more. Thus it is not the future that is long, for the future does not exist: a long future is merely a long expectation of the future; nor is the past long since the past does not exist: a long past is merely a long memory of the past.” ~ Augustine of Hippo (354-430), Confessions
Imagine you wake up
with a second chance. The blue jay
hawks his pretty wares
and the oak still stands, spreading
glorious shade. If you don’t look back
the future never happens.
How good to rise in sunlight,
in the prodigal smell of biscuits —
eggs and sausage on the grill.
The whole sky is yours
to write on, blow open
to a black page. Come on,
shake a leg! You’ll never know
who’s down there, frying those eggs,
if you don’t get up and see.
~ Rita Dove, born 1952, American poet, playwright, and novelist
Sunday, November 21, 2010
(Wheatfield with Rising Sun by Vincent van Gogh, 1853-1890, Dutch Post-Impressionist painter)
“Her father had put up a swing for the younger children in the wash-house. She could hear one of them now, crying, ‘Higher! Higher!’ Except for the baby asleep in the cradle, her mother and she were alone in the room, which, on that dull day, was aglow with firelight. Her mother’s pastry board and rolling-pin still stood on a white cloth on one end of the table, and the stew for dinner, mostly composed of vegetables but very savory-smelling, simmered upon the hob. She had a sudden impulse to tell her mother how much she loved her; but in the early ’teens such feelings cannot be put into words, and all she could do was to praise the potato cake.” ~ Flora Thompson (1877-1947), Over to Candleford
THE BRIGHT FIELD
I have seen the sun break through
to illuminate a small field
for a while, and gone my way
and forgotten it. But that was the pearl
of great price, the one field that had
the treasure in it. I realize now
that I must give all that I have
to possess it. Life is not hurrying
on to a receding future, nor hankering after
an imagined past. It is the turning
aside like Moses to the miracle
of the burning bush, to a brightness
that seemed as transitory as your youth
once, but is the eternity that awaits you.
~ R. S. Thomas (1913-2000), Welsh poet
Saturday, November 20, 2010
(Archy at Work, illustration by George
Don Marquis (1878-1937) was a New York newspaper man and poet. Beginning in 1916, when he was writing a daily column at The New York Evening Sun, sometimes in the mornings he would find short poems left in his typewriter. They were written by Archy, a cockroach who tapped out the words late at night when the humans were home in bed. Since Archy could not use the shift key on the typewriter, there were no punctuation marks or capital letters.
In his first note, Archy introduced himself to “boss,” as he called Don Marquis:
expression is the need of my soul
i was once a vers libre* bard
but i died and my soul went into the body of a cockroach
it has given me a new outlook upon life
i see things from the under side now
Some of Archy’s best lines are found in his collection of maxims.
has its silver
but it is
sometimes a little
difficult to get it to
* vers libre – free verse with no regular rhyme, meter, or stanza lengths
Friday, November 19, 2010
(The dedication of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg,
November 19, 1863)
(Detail of the picture above: the only confirmed photograph
of President Lincoln at Gettysburg — he stands hatless just
below the man with the sash and beside the man in the top hat.)
Today is the anniversary of President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
On July 1, 1863, General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces collided by chance with Major General George G. Meade’s Union forces just outside of a sleepy hamlet in Pennsylvania. In the three days of fighting that followed, the countryside around Gettysburg was transformed into the bloodiest battlefield of the war, with almost 50,000 casualties evenly distributed between the two sides. It took months to bury the fallen soldiers and to clear away the carcasses of the dead horses.
This was the decisive battle of the Civil War. Gettysburg was the farthest point north the Southern army would ever get. Lee’s gamble was breathtaking. Had he won this battle, his army would have been within striking distance of Washington. Instead, his army never really recovered from the loss.
More than four months later, there remained many dead yet to be buried. In this atmosphere, on the afternoon of November 19, Abraham Lincoln spoke at the dedication of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg. The ceremony began with Edward Everett’s delivery of a long oration. Then Lincoln spoke briefly.
Lincoln’s remarks are the ones that have echoed through history. In a note the next day, Everett told the President, “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”
The Gettysburg Address
Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that “all men are created equal.”
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of it, as a final resting place for those who died here, that the nation might live. This we may, in all propriety do. But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow, this ground — The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have hallowed it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here; while it can never forget what they did here.
It is rather for us, the living, we here be dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that, from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here, gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people by the people for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
from THE PEOPLE, YES
He was a mystery in smoke and flags
Saying yes to the smoke, yes to the flags,
Yes to the paradoxes of democracy,
Yes to the hopes of government
Of the people by the people for the people,
No to debauchery of the public mind,
No to personal malice nursed and fed,
Yes to the Constitution when a help,
No to the Constitution when a hindrance
Yes to man as a struggler amid illusions,
Each man fated to answer for himself:
Which of the faiths and illusions of mankind
Must I choose for my own sustaining light
To bring me beyond the present wilderness?
Lincoln? Was he a poet?
And did he write verses?
“I have not willingly planted a thorn
in any man’s bosom.”
“I shall do nothing through malice: what
I deal with is too vast for malice.”
Death was in the air.
So was birth.
~ Carl Sandburg (1878-1967), American poet, writer, and biographer of Lincoln
Thursday, November 18, 2010
(The Silence That Is the Lonely Woods by
John Everett Millais, 1829-1896, English
painter and illustrator)
“As she returned by a different circuit to the house, feeling all the happy privilege of country liberty, of wandering from place to place in free and luxurious solitude, she resolved to spend almost every hour of every day while she remained with the Palmers, in the indulgence of such solitary rambles.” ~ Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility
from WALKS IN THE WOODS
Oh, I do love to force a way
Through woods where lone the woodman goes,
Through all the matted shades to stray,
The brambles tearing at my clothes;
And it may tear; I love the noise
And hug the solitary joys.
The woodman, he from top to toe
In leathern doublet brushes on;
He cares not where his rambles go,
Thorns, briers, he beats them every one;
Their utmost spite his armor foils;
Unhurt, he dares his daily toils.
Knee-deep in fern he daily stoops
And loud his bill or hatchet chops,
As snug he trims the faggot up
Or gaps in mossy hedges stops;
While echo chops as he hath done
As if she counted every one.
~ John Clare (1793-1864), English Romantic poet
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
(Saint Elizabeth Tending the Sick in Marbourg
by the Master of the Four Saint Elizabeth Panels,
active 1490-1510 in the Netherlands)
Today is the feast day of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary in the Catholic liturgical calendar. As the daughter of a Hungarian father, I took her name when I was confirmed in the Church.
Elizabeth was born in 1207, a daughter of the King of Hungary. She was devoted to the teachings of Saint Francis of Assisi. She is best known in Hungary and Germany.
According to one legend, one winter day Elizabeth met her husband on the road as she was carrying a heavy load of bread to distribute to the poor. Concerned about the weight of her burden, he opened her mantle. In the dead of winter, beautiful red and white roses tumbled out of her cloak.
After her husband’s death of the plague on his way to a Crusade, Elizabeth devoted the rest of her life to helping the poor and nursing the sick, while spending her wealth to build hospitals and shelters. She died when she was only 24 years old, in 1231.
THE SAME INSIDE
Walking to your place for a love feast
I saw at a street corner
an old beggar woman.
I took her hand,
kissed her delicate cheek,
we talked, she was
the same inside as I am,
from the same kind,
I sensed this instantly
as a dog knows by scent
I gave her money.
I could not part from her.
After all, one needs
someone who is close.
And then I no longer knew
why I was walking to your place.
~ Anna Swir (1909-1984), Polish poet
Tuesday, November 16, 2010
(Flowers by Séraphine Louis, 1864-1942,
Maksym Rylsky (1895-1964) was a Ukrainian poet and translator who was arrested for a brief time in 1931. It is believed that he ran afoul of Stalin because of the sentiments he expressed in this poem.
WHEN EVERYTHING IN LIFE’S HAZE
When everything in life’s haze
Is lost and leaves no traces,
You don’t feel like leaving home or going home,
Because even there the fire has long ago burned out —
In you, art, in you alone there is
Shelter: in the beauty of unknown words.
In music that embodies beauty known to all
Into a heavenly play of colors.
In you, art, in a small painting
That is greater than the entire boundless world!
To you, art, and in your realm
I send you a bow and my warm greeting.
Your deeds — alone are everlasting,
And among the flowers you are the brightest one.
Monday, November 15, 2010
(Polynesia, the Sky by Henri Matisse, 1869-1954, French
printmaker, painter, and sculptor)
“‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul,” wrote Emily Dickinson.
I AM THE TREE
I am the tree ascending.
At the topmost branch
I’ve become the bird,
starting from tip to
climb into above.
My purposes are clear.
~ Etta Blum (1908-1981), American poet, writer, and translator of Yiddish
Sunday, November 14, 2010
(Le Pont Neuf, Paris by Brassaï, 1899-1984, one
of the many Hungarian photographers who moved
to Paris after World War I)
THE USES OF SORROW
(In my sleep I dreamed this poem.)
Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.
~ Mary Oliver, born 1935, American poet
Saturday, November 13, 2010
(Notre Dame Cathedral, Paris — flying
buttresses or masonry columns placed
on the outside to support and carry the
weight of the walls and roofs of Gothic
Let me have more pity on my own heart, the poet writes, for I cannot go it alone.
MY OWN HEART LET ME MORE HAVE PITY ON
My own heart let me more have pity on; let
Me live to my sad self hereafter kind,
Charitable; not live this tormented mind
With this tormented mind tormenting yet.
I cast for comfort I can no more get
By groping round my comfortless, than blind
Eyes in their dark can day or thirst can find
Thirst’s all-in-all in all a world of wet.
Soul, self; come, poor Jackself, I do advise
You, jaded, let be; call off thoughts awhile
Elsewhere; leave comfort root-room; let joy size
At God knows when to God knows what; whose smile
’s not wrung, see you; unforeseen times rather — as skies
Betweenpie mountains — lights a lovely mile.
~ Gerard Manley Hopkins, S.J.(1844-1899), British poet whose work has had a profound influence on modern poetry
Friday, November 12, 2010
(Draped Reclining Mother and Baby by Henry Moore,
1898-1986, English sculptor and artist)
“Hope, like love,” wrote the German philosopher Josef Pieper, “is one of the very simple, primordial dispositions of the living person. In hope, man reaches ‘with restless heart’ [in the words of Augustine], with confidence and patient expectation, toward the bonum arduum futurum, toward the arduous ‘not yet’ of fulfillment, whether natural or supernatural.”
IN MY TIME
It’s easy to praise things present — the belligerent
stance of the woodhouse toad, the total
self-absorption of the frostweed blossom.
It’s simple to compliment a familiar mess
of curly dock, the serene organization
of common onion reeds, the radish bulb
and its slender purple tail. And I like the way
the jay flings dirt furiously this morning
from the window box, the ridiculous shakings
of his black beak.
But it’s not easy to praise things yet-to-come —
the nonexistent nubs of mountains not risen
from beneath the floor of the sea
or a new sound from some new creature,
descended maybe from our golden peepers
and white-chinned chuggers, that sound
becoming synonymous, for someone else,
How can I appreciate light from an aging
sun shining through new configurations neither pine
nor ash? How can I extol the nurturing
fragrances from the spires, the spicules
of a landscape not yet formed or seeded?
I can praise these flowers today — the white yucca
with its simmering powder-covered moth, the desert
tahoka daisy and the buffalo gourd — but never
the future strangeness that may eventually
take their places.
From here now, I simply praise in advance
the one who will be there then,
so moved, as I, to do the praising.
~ Pattiann Rogers, born 1940, American poet
Thursday, November 11, 2010
(Names on the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington,
D.C., photograph by Hu Totya)
In the United States, November 11 is known as Veterans Day. It honors the American veterans of all wars.
In other countries, especially the members of the British Commonwealth, it is called Armistice Day or Remembrance Day. These names reflect the original intent, to commemorate the signing of the Armistice between the British allies and the vanquished Germans, ending World War I on “the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918. In Canada and Great Britain, especially, many people wear an artificial poppy on their lapels to recall John McCrae's poem* from the War,
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row, . . .
My black face fades,
hiding inside the black granite.
I said I wouldn’t,
dammit: No tears.
I’m stone. I’m flesh.
My clouded reflection eyes me
like a bird of prey, the profile of night
slanted against morning. I turn
this way — the stone lets me go.
I turn that way — I’m inside
the Vietnam Veterans Memorial
again, depending on the light
to make a difference.
I go down the 58,022 names,
half-expecting to find
my own in letters like smoke.
I touch the name Andrew Johnson;
I see the booby trap’s white flash.
Names shimmer on a woman’s blouse
but when she walks away
the names stay on the wall.
Brushstrokes flash, a red bird’s
wings cutting across my stare.
The sky. A plane in the sky.
A white vet’s image floats
closer to me, then his pale eyes
look through mine. I’m a window.
He’s lost his right arm
inside the stone. In the black mirror
a woman’s trying to erase names:
No, she’s brushing a boy’s hair.
~ Yusef Komunyakaa, born 1947, American poet and Vietnam veteran
* For John McCrae’s poem In Flanders Fields, click on his name in the Labels below.
Wednesday, November 10, 2010
(Mstislav “Slava” Rostropovich, 1927-2007,
one of history’s greatest cellists, a Russian in
exile, performing a Bach cello suite by the
Berlin Wall on November 11, 1989)
Yesterday, November 9, was the anniversary of two important events of the twentieth century.
The poem below marks the second event, the collapse of the Berlin Wall. It was written by Karol Wojtyla (1920-2005), the Polish priest, philosopher, playwright, and poet who became Pope John Paul II. In 1940, he began four years of forced labor under the Nazis, the first year spent in the backbreaking work of mining limestone. He composed this poem in 1956.
Listen: the even knocking of hammers,
so much their own,
I project on to the people
to test the strength of each blow.
Listen now: electric current
cuts through a river of rock.
And a thought grows in me day after day:
the greatness of work is inside man.
Hard and cracked
his hand is differently charged
by the hammer
and thought differently unravels in stone
as human energy splits from the strength of stone
cutting the bloodstream, an artery
in the right place.
Look: how love feeds
on this well-grounded anger
which flows in to people’s breath
as a river bent by the wind,
and which is never spoken, but just breaks high vocal cords.
Passers-by scuttle off into doorways,
someone whispers: “Yet here is a great force.”
Fear not. Man’s daily deeds have a wide span,
a strait riverbed can’t imprison them long.
Fear not. For centuries they all stand in Him,
and you look at Him now
through the even knocking of hammers.
Tuesday, November 9, 2010
(The Refugee by Felix Nussbaum, 1904-1944,
German-Jewish Expressionist painter murdered
Today marks the anniversary of two very significant events in the twentieth century. This was a century “when evils were most free,” as the Hungarian writer George Gabori titled the account of his life in both Hitler’s and Stalin’s camps.
The first event took place on November 9, 1938, when Nazi Germany exposed to the world its true intentions. That night, Hitler’s thugs destroyed many synagogues and Jewish businesses in a progrom that came to be known as Kristallnacht or Night of Broken Glass, after the shattered glass of countless windows they left behind.
The second event took place only 21 years ago, on November 9, 1989. That day, television cameras showed the world the hundreds and then thousands of East Germans climbing the Berlin Wall into the West, into freedom. The Iron Curtain was finally torn asunder.
To commemorate these anniversaries, I have chosen two poems written by men who witnessed first-hand the horrors of these twin lunacies, National Socialism and Communism.
Today’s poem, marking the anniversary of the first event, was written by Dan Pagis (1930-1986), a Romanian-born Israeli poet, who survived the Holocaust by escaping from a Nazi concentration camp in Ukraine.
SCRAWLED IN PENCIL IN A SEALED RAILWAY CAR
here in this transport
and abel my son
if you should see my older son
cain son of man
tell him that i
Monday, November 8, 2010
(Paris Café, 1924, by Eugène Atget, 1857-1927, French
“At first I was afraid of going to places where H. and I had been happy — our favorite pub, our favorite wood,” wrote C. S. Lewis in his book A Grief Observed. “But I decided to do it at once — like sending a pilot up again as soon as possible after he’s had a crash. Unexpectedly, it makes no difference. Her absence is no more emphatic in those places than anywhere else. It’s not local at all. . . . Her absence is like the sky, spread over everything.”
The train stopped at a little station
and for a moment stood absolutely still.
The doors slammed, gravel crunched underfoot,
someone said goodbye forever,
a glove dropped, the sun dimmed,
the doors slammed again, even louder,
and the iron train set off slowly
and vanished in the fog like the nineteenth century.
~ Adam Zagajewski, born 1945, Polish poet who now teaches in the U.S.
Sunday, November 7, 2010
(Hayley Mills in the title role of Pollyanna, the 1960
What can you do when misfortune comes your way?
You can follow the example of Pollyanna, the orphan in the 1912 classic children’s story by Eleanor Porter (as explained in the abridged passage below from the novel).
“You don’t seem ter see any trouble bein’ glad about everythin’,” retorted Nancy, choking a little over her remembrance of Pollyanna’s brave attempts to like the bare little attic room.
Pollyanna laughed softly. “Well, that’s the game, you know, anyway.”
“The — game?”
“Yes — the ‘just being glad’ game. Father told it to me, and it’s lovely. We’ve played it always, ever since I was a little, little girl.” In the gathering twilight her face looked thin and wistful. “Why, we began it on some crutches that came in a missionary barrel.”
“Yes. You see I’d wanted a doll, and Father had written them so; but when the barrel came the lady wrote that there hadn’t any dolls come in, but the little crutches had. So she sent ’em along as they might come in handy for some child, some time. And that’s when we began it. The game was to just find something about everything to be glad about — no matter what ’twas. And we began right then — on the crutches.
“I couldn’t see it, at first. Father had to tell it to me. Just be glad because you don’t — need — ’em!”
Or you can just keep in mind the old saying that it’s always darkest before the dawn.
IT’S ALWAYS DARKEST BEFORE THE DAWN
But how dark
Does it get
jet — or tar —
black; does it
glint and increase
or turn viscous?
Are there stages
to match against
up to our blindness,
we’ll have the
night behind us?
~ Kay Ryan, born 1945, American poet
Saturday, November 6, 2010
(Fork by André Kertész, 1894-1985, Hungarian-born
“To the steadfast eye of one standing upon the shore of things,” wrote the American architect Louis Sullivan (1856-1924), “looking chiefly and most lovingly upon that side on which the sun shines and that we feel joyously to be life, the heart is ever gladdened by the beauty, the exquisite spontaneity, with which life seeks and takes on its forms in an accord perfectly responsive to its needs. It seems ever as though the life and the form were absolutely one and inseparable so adequate is the sense of fulfillment. . . .
“It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic, of all things physical and metaphysical, of all things human and all things superhuman, of all true manifestations of the head, of the heart, of the soul, that the life is recognizable in its expression, that form ever follows function.”
THE PATIENCE OF ORDINARY THINGS
It is a kind of love, is it not?
How the cup holds the tea,
How the chair stands sturdy and foursquare,
How the floor receives the bottoms of shoes
Or toes. How soles of feet know
Where they’re supposed to be.
I’ve been thinking about the patience
Of ordinary things, how clothes
Wait respectfully in closets
And soap dries quietly in the dish,
And towels drink the wet
From the skin of the back.
And the lovely repetition of stairs.
And what is more generous than a window?
~ Pat Schneider, American poet and writer
Friday, November 5, 2010
(Lark’s Wing, Encircled with Golden
Blue, Rejoins the Heart of the Poppy
Sleeping on a Diamond-Studded Meadow
by Joan Miró, 1893-1983, Spanish painter,
ceramist, and sculptor)
This poem is a villanelle, named after the Latin villa or country estate or farm. It is a lyric poetic form believed to have started as the round-songs of farm workers. The rhyme is set in lines one and three and then repeated in each three-line or tercet verse, until the last stanza, a quatrain with an added refrain line.
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 beloved 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.
~ Elizabeth Bishop (1911-1979), American poet
Thursday, November 4, 2010
(Geraniums by Andrew Wyeth, 1917-2009,
We need Love. “We are born helpless,” C. S. Lewis wrote in his introduction to The Four Loves. “As soon as we are fully conscious we discover loneliness. We need others physically, emotionally, intellectually; we need them if we are to know anything, even ourselves.”
AT THE MOMENT
Suddenly, I stopped thinking about Love,
after so many years of only that,
after thinking that nothing else mattered.
And what was I thinking of when I stopped
thinking about Love? Death, of course — what else
could take Love’s place? What else could hold such force?
I thought about how far away Death once
had seemed, how unexpected that it could
happen to someone I knew quite well,
how impossible that this should be the
normal thing, as natural as frost and
winter. I thought about the way we’d aged,
how skin fell into wrinkles, how eyes grew
dim; then (of course) my love, I thought of you.
~ Joyce Sutphen, born 1949, American poet
Wednesday, November 3, 2010
(Mattie J. T. Stepanek, 1990-2004)
Mattie Stepanek began writing poetry when he was three years old, after his elder brother died from a rare form of muscular dystrophy. Later, the condition also killed his sister and his other brother, and then Mattie himself when he was thirteen.
Mattie wrote six books of poems and one of prose, to great acclaim. All his books rejoice in the celebration of life. He remained brave and cheerful and full of hope in the midst of suffering and even in the face of his own imminent death. He was in many ways a saint, a remarkable example to us all.
ETERNAL ROLE CALL
I will paint rainbows
When the spring comes,
And children will dance
And smile in the music of my colors.
I will shape clouds
When the summer comes,
And children will chant
And dream in the melody of my creations.
I will whistle winds
When the fall comes,
And children will listen
And hum in the understanding of leaves.
I will jingle stars
When the winter comes,
And children will laugh
And believe in the ballads of the season.
I will revolve seasonally
When my death comes,
And children will remember
And share their Heartsongs,
Celebrating the gifts in the circle of life.
~ Mattie J. T. Stepanek, from his book Celebrate Through Heartsongs
Tuesday, November 2, 2010
(High Cross at Clonmacnoise, Ireland)
Today is known as All Souls’ Day or The Day of the Dead. In many countries on this day, families pray for the repose of the souls of their loved ones and decorate their graves.
from O MAY I JOIN THE CHOIR INVISIBLE
O may I join the choir invisible
Of those immortal dead who live again
In minds made better by their presence: live
In pulses stirred to generosity,
In deeds of daring rectitude, in scorn
For miserable aims that end with self,
In thoughts sublime that pierce the night like stars,
And with their mild persistence urge man’s search
To vaster issues.
~ George Eliot (1819-1880), pseudonym of Mary Ann Evans, English novelist, poet, and translator
Monday, November 1, 2010
(Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs by Fra
Angelico, 1395?-1455, Italian Early Renaissance painter)
(This month we contemplate the “old drama” that takes place every November: “this disappearance of the leaves, / this seeming death / of the landscape,” in the words of the poet Linda Pastan.)
Yesterday we celebrated Halloween, also known as All Hallows’ Eve or All Saints’ Eve.
In many countries, today is known as All Saints’ Day. People take the time to honor and remember those who came before them, the good and the hallowed and the holy, known and unknown. Their stories serve as examples for leading the virtuous life. They form the “great . . . cloud of witnesses” that Paul of Tarsus wrote about in his Letter to the Hebrews, imparting their wisdom through the generations.
ALL SAINTS’ DAY
The holiday arrives
quietly like phrases
of faint praise
in Braille. Famous
saints bow at the waist,
then step back, making
room for scores
of unknown saints,
to whom this day
also belongs. Not
a glamorous bunch,
unsung ones, shading
their eyes shyly
in the backs of the minds
of the few who knew them.
Hung-over, mute, confused,
hunched, clumsy, blue,
pinched, rigid or fidgety,
unable to look the radioactive,
well-dressed major saints
in the eye, they wonder,
terrified: What (the #%*&)
Am I Doing Here? Still
drenched, the tobacco-
spitting fisherman who dove
after a dog swept downriver
looks in vain for a towel,
too timid to ask. (His dog
now sports a halo, too.)
Robed in volcanic ash,
a brave Pompeii matron
is mistaken by St. Catherine
for a sooty statue. An old
coot who serenaded
his dying wife with her
favorite ukulele tunes
is still trying to find her,
as his map of the afterlife
proved unreliable. What can
we offer these reticent saints
who lacked press agents?
Flowers? Lit candles? Floating
lanterns? The nerdy
fat whistle-blower from
the chemical plant
whose plaid slacks
made his coworkers
laugh behind his back
nervously jokes sotto
voce that he’d give
his soul for a Coke,
but no one can hear him.
~ Amy Gerstler, b. 1956, American poet