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.