Monday, December 21, 2020

Winter Solstice Chant - Annie Finch

Vines, leaves, roots of darkness, growing,
now you are uncurled and cover our eyes
with the edge of winter sky
leaning over us in icy stars.
Vines, leaves, roots of darkness, growing,
come with your seasons, your fullness, your end.

The winter solstice is a special day, and the day of the year with the shortest light. In my area, that's only around 9 hours of daylight today. And in a year such as this 2020 has been, it's hard to not feel depressed with the leaving of the light. Indeed, the description Finch gives us, of darkness like a flowering plant, uncurling and covering our eyes, is potent and vivid. I can feel the tendrils of night, like a plant, creeping over us, choking out the light. As I type this, it's 4:15p.m., and soon, within minutes, the sun will set on this shortest day of the year. I would be lying if I said that I don't deeply feel the lack of light, this year, especially.

And yet, there is not an absence of beauty in the darkness, as Finch reminds us. Our eyes are covered, but they are covered with the "edge of winter sky" which leans over us in "icy stars." It's a beautiful image, and truly, the winter sky can be magical. I personally am a big fan of a rich, almost purple, velvety winter sky, with the moon reflected on cold snow. That doesn't make the short days easier, however. That's why I find the last two lines of Finch's poem so wonderful. Yes, the winter sky covering us can be beautiful, but more importantly, it will end.

"Come with your seasons, your fullness, your end." The winter solstice, shortest day of the year that it is, signifies to us that each day from henceforth will be that little bit longer. We entreat the solstice to come because that means that every coming day will have just that bit more light for us. Seasons, fullness, these are not bleak words. And the format of the poem, as suggested by the title, is chant-like. I know I often urge you readers to read these poems out loud, and this is no different. There's something almost sacred feeling about the rhythm of the poem. Maybe the solstice itself, and reading about it, have put me in a magical headspace, but there's something especially satisfying about the rhythm of this poem.

While I have not shared much poetry this year, I feel fortunate to be in good health, and able to still share some with you all. It has been a difficult year for so many, and truly, I have been fortunate throughout it all. It's my sincere hope that if the solstice and the long darkness of night are difficult for you that this poem act as a panacea for those woes. When you read it out loud, imagine that you are joined by every other reader, separate in body, but together in spirit, chanting this poem of change and hope into the night. As Finch so elegantly put it, "Come with your seasons, your fullness, your end." I hope to post a few more times before the coming of the new year, but if I cannot, thank you, readers. I hope I've been able to bring just the tiniest bit of light to you on this darkest of days.

Friday, May 8, 2020

In Time of Plague - Thomas Nashe

Adieu, farewell, earth's bliss;
This world uncertain is;
Fond are life's lustful joys;
Death proves them all but toys;
None from his darts can fly;
I am sick, I must die.
     Lord, have mercy on us!

Rich men, trust not in wealth,
Gold cannot buy you health;
Physic himself must fade.
All things to end are made,
The plague full swift goes by;
I am sick, I must die.
     Lord, have mercy on us!

Beauty is but a flower
Which wrinkles will devour;
Brightness falls from the air;
Queens have died young and fair;
Dust hath closed Helen's eye.
I am sick, I must die.
     Lord, have mercy on us!

Strength stoops unto the grave,
Worms feed on Hector's brave;
Swords may not fight with fate,
Earth still holds ope her gate.
"Come, come!" the bells do cry.
I am sick, I must die.
     Lord, have mercy on us.

Wit with his wantonness
Tasteth death's bitterness;
Hell's executioner
Hath no ears for to hear
What vain art can reply.
I am sick, I must die.
     Lord, have mercy on us.

Haste, therefore, each degree,
To welcome destiny;
Heaven is our heritage,
Earth but a player's stage;
Mount we unto the sky.
I am sick, I must die.
     Lord, have mercy on us.

Given the state of the world right now, in May of 2020, I find myself thinking back through history, to another time of plague.  This brought me to Thomas Nashe, and this litany in the time of plague from his 1592 comedic stage play, Summer's Last Will and Testament.  A landmark work of English drama, Nashe's work wasn't performed when it was finished, due to an outbreak of bubonic plague.

Existing somewhere in between the earlier interlude dramatic form of the 16th century, and the later masque form of the 17th century, Nashe's work features many pastoral elements, such as satyrs, nymphs, Bacchus, etc.  These stock elements were well-known to audiences of the time, so references to things like Helen, Hector, etc, in this poem, while somewhat unfamiliar to us, were common in dramas of the time.  They offer handy shorthand, and establish mood, place, and theme.

So what of the text itself?  It's structured like a litany, a prayer, like a series of petitions, hence why each stanza ends with, "I am sick, I must die. / Lord, have mercy on us."  The text works as a farewell to life, earth's pleasures revealed as toys by death.  No amount of money can keep you from dying of plague, which, while true, I can't help but think of the awful disparity that exists in the US currently between those who have access to healthcare and those that do not, when it comes to coronavirus lethality.

However, the litany does not end in despair.  Earth is but a stage for our plays, and our heritage is heaven.  The repeated entreaties for mercy are not out of despair for life, but hope for life out of death.  I am not a particularly religious person, but looking to a time after the time of plague and sickness is uplifting.  I don't want this to feel like a grim post.  I find comfort in reading how people navigated these times in the past, and without the benefits we have now in terms of information and medicine.  I hope you're all well.  I ask that in these times, you think unselfishly.  Act with your neighbors and family in mind, and be well.

Monday, January 6, 2020

Fog - Carl Sandburg

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

Sometimes, it's enough that a poem simply conjure to mind one specific feeling or image with clarity.  To so clearly communicate what something so amorphous as fog feels like, rather, behaves like, is an achievement, and the direct statement of such is what I admire about Carl Sandburg's poetry.  Fog touches lightly, and comes and goes without making a commotion like rain, or snow.

Sandburg himself once defined poetry as, "a pack-sack of invisible keepsakes."  That's appropriate, I think, for this little gem of a poem, which captures the feeling of fog.  In a way, it's as if Sandburg has taken the image of fog as a keepsake for himself.  I know that the next time I wake to a foggy morning, I won't be able to help myself but to remember fog as coming on "little cat feet."  In that sense, Sandburg has given us, too, a little, invisible keepsake.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

Amoretti LXII: "The weary yeare his race now having run" - Edmund Spenser

The weary yeare his race now having run,
The new begins his compast course anew:
With shew of morning mylde he hath begun,
Betokening peace and plenty to ensew.
So let us, which this chaunge of weather vew,
Chaunge eeke our munds and former lives amend,
The old yeares sinnes forepast let us eschew, 
And fly the faults with which we did offend.
Then shall the new yeares joy forth freshly send,
Into the glooming world his gladsome ray:
And all these stormes which now his beauty blend,
Shall turne to caulmes and tymely cleare away.
So likewise love cheare you your heavy spright,
And chaunge old yeares annoy to new delight.

In advance of the new year, I thought it only appropriate to look at a poem welcoming the new year, a Spenser sonnet which deliberately seeks to liberate the reader and poet from the bonds of the old.  Spenser here is writing in an English which is somewhere in between Middle English and Early Modern English, and as such, uses spellings and words that are unfamiliar to our modern eyes.  This was deliberate on Spenser's part, an affectation meant to sound "old" in the same way that an American author today could try to evoke a sense of time and place by modeling their language on Melville.  Don't think too hard about it, though, and just sound the words out loud, slowly, and it should be clear.  

Summarized, the poem, in our modern English, more or less means:

The weary year, his race now run,
The new year begins his compassed (set, fixed, planned) course anew:
With a show of mild morning he has begun,
Betokening peace and plenty (more) to ensue.
So let us, with the change of weather,
Change also (eek is a lovely Middle English word for "also") our minds, and amend our own lives,
Eschew the sins of the old year,
And let go of the faults with which we offended.
After that, the new year will send forth fresh joys
Into the glooming (gloomy) world with a gladsome (cheerful) ray.
All these storms that blend (obscure) the year's beauty
Will turn calm, and clear away in time.
So, likewise, love (you, the subject), clear away your heavy spright (spirit)
And change the old year's annoyances to new delight.

Hopefully that's easier to read!  The poem is an entreaty to recognize the old year's storms, sins, annoyances, and grievances, and to turn towards the new year, and to "chaunge eeke our mynds and former lives amend."  The new year always seems to inspire in us the opportunity for a fresh start, to turn a page, and to live better, with more love, and just as storms clear away in time, we too can find a calmer, better life.

On a personal note, I've long been annoyed with celebrations of the new year.  It has always seemed so terribly arbitrary to me, and I confess, even in the face of a beautiful poem like this, I remain unconvinced.  But, in the spirit of this poem, I'll put away my quarrel with celebrating the new year, and instead, try to cheer my heavy spirit, and change my old year's annoyances into new delights.  This poem was certainly a delight for me, and I hope it was for you, as well.

I hope this poem, and the new year, find you well.  I recognize that I've posted precious little in the way of poetry these past two years, but I assure you, I've not forgotten it.  I have been amazed for years now at the sheer volume of readership of my tiny little blog, and am humbled that others take the time out of their days to search for poetry, and maybe even read what little I may have to add.  Thank you.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Eight O'Clock - Sara Teasdale

Supper comes at five o'clock,
At six, the evening star,
My lover comes at eight o'clock-
But eight o'clock is far.

How could I bear my pain all day
Unless I watched to see
The clock-hands laboring to bring
Eight o'clock to me.

More than a poem, I think of this beautifully rhythmic and metrical Sara Teasdale poem like a song.  And just like a song, its directness is its strength.  Through her use of conventional rhyme and rhythm, the poem falls off the tongue easily.  The repetitions of various "o'clock[s]" build anticipation for eight o'clock, when as she tells us, her lover comes.  The anticipation is such that she can't help but watch the clock, hoping for it to bring her lover with each hand's stroke.

There isn't much to say here, but I like the way Teasdale sets up the schedule of her afternoon and night to us in the first stanza.  It helps cement, to me, at least, our relationship with time, and touches very accurately on how things we desire and anticipate always seem to take a little longer to arrive.  It's a lovely little song of a poem, and I hope you enjoy it, and think fondly of happy times that you couldn't wait to arrive.

Tuesday, May 15, 2018

"Although the wind..." - Izumi Shikibu

translated by Jane Hirshfield

Although the wind
blows terribly here,
the moonlight also leaks
between the roof planks
of this ruined house.

Izumi Shikibu was a Heian era Japanese poet (late 10th century, early 11th century), and her poetry frequently combines romantic, erotic longing with Buddhist contemplation.  This poem comes to us courtesy of Jane Hirshfield and Mariko Aratani's 1990 book, The Ink Dark Moon: Love Poems by Onono Komachi and Izumi Shikibu, Women of the Ancient Court of Japan.  I do not typically feature poetry in translation, but this gripped me for the way it frames nature and our perception of it through an ephemeral human lens.

Wind and moonlight, in this poem, act like invaders.  The wind blows terribly, and the moonlight leaks through roof planks.  The house is ruined.  That said, the wind and moonlight didn't ruin it.  If anything, the house was the invader.  The framing of familiar poetic elements through the slats of a house falling apart is inherently romantic, and instills a sense of longing into the poem.  It does so with great economy, being only five lines.  It's also an incredibly clear image, despite having so little detail.  I know it certainly got my imagination racing.

I hesitate to go much further in analysis, given that this is in translation, and I have no personal ability to compare it to the source material.  I don't know if there are shades of meaning that are lost to translation, or if I am reading into the text things that aren't there due to Shikibu's biography, but I can also think of this poem as a reaction to a love that has fallen apart.  The house would be the relationship itself, and the wind that blows so terribly through it the falling out of love of the participants.  I don't think that's textually supported, but it's a romantic thought nonetheless.

Monday, May 14, 2018

'Out, Out-' - Robert Frost

The buzz saw snarled and rattled in the yard
And made dust and dropped stove-length sticks of wood,
Sweet-scented stuff when the breeze drew across it.
And from there those that lifted eyes could count
Five mountain ranges one behind the other
Under the sunset far into Vermont.
And the saw snarled and rattled, snarled and rattled,
As it ran light, or had to bear a load.
And nothing happened: day was all but done.
Call it a day, I wish they might have said
To please the boy by giving him the half hour
That a boy counts so much when saved from work.
His sister stood behind him in her apron
To tell them 'Supper.' At the word, the saw,
As if to prove saws knew what supper meant.
Leaped out at the boy's hand, or seemed to leap-
He must have given the hand. However it was,
Neither refused the meeting. But the hand!
The boy's first outcry was a rueful laugh,
As he swung toward them holding up the hand
Half in appeal, but half as if to keep
The life from spilling. Then the boy saw all-
Since he was old enough to know, big boy
Doing a man's work, though a child at heart-
He saw all spoiled. 'Don't let him cut my hand off-
The doctor, when he comes. Don't let him, sister!'
So. But the hand was gone already.
The doctor put him in the dark of ether.
He lay and puffed his lips out with his breath.
And then - the watcher at his pulse took fright.
Little--less--nothing!--and that ended it.
No more to build on there. And they, since they
Were not the one dead, turned to their affairs.

From time to time, I like to remind myself that poetry can be truly awful.  Not awful in the sense that it is poorly written, or low quality, but awful in the gut-wrenching, heart-breaking sense, like this Robert Frost poem.  There's little for me to explain.  Frost uses plain English, and starkly little in the way of poetic technique to tell the gruesome, awful tale of a boy who loses his hand, and his life, to a buzz saw.  A boy too young to rightly be called a man, so precisely described as "big boy, /Doing a man's work, though a child at heart."

What stands out, apart from the truly terrible story at the heart of this poem, is the specificity of detail within.  From the number of mountains, to the size and smell of the planks of wood being cut, the account is vivid in the extreme.  Who among us who has seen tragedy has not had the specifics of the scene burned into their minds?  For my parents' generation, everyone remembers where they were when they heard that JFK had been assassinated.  For my generation, everyone remembers where they were and what they were doing when they heard of the terror attacks on September 11th, 2001.  So it is with this poem.