‘The New-year bells are wrangling with the snow’

A minor master of traditional American verse steeped in wryness, Richard Wilbur wrote “Year’s End” influenced by Robert Frost. A lovely way with which to ring in 2019.

Now winter downs the dying of the year,
And night is all a settlement of snow;
From the soft street the rooms of houses show
A gathered light, a shapen atmosphere,
Like frozen-over lakes whose ice is thin
And still allows some stirring down within.

I’ve known the wind by water banks to shake
The late leaves down, which frozen where they fell
And held in ice as dancers in a spell
Fluttered all winter long into a lake;
Graved on the dark in gestures of descent,
They seemed their own most perfect monument.

There was perfection in the death of ferns
Which laid their fragile cheeks against the stone
A million years. Great mammoths overthrown
Composedly have made their long sojourns,
Like palaces of patience, in the gray
And changeless lands of ice. And at Pompeii

The little dog lay curled and did not rise
But slept the deeper as the ashes rose
And found the people incomplete, and froze
The random hands, the loose unready eyes
Of men expecting yet another sun
To do the shapely thing they had not done.

These sudden ends of time must give us pause.
We fray into the future, rarely wrought
Save in the tapestries of afterthought.
More time, more time. Barrages of applause
Come muffled from a buried radio.
The New-year bells are wrangling with the snow.

Happy 2019.

‘Come; see the oxen kneel’

A poet and novelist of unrelenting gloom that never quite shaded into despair, Thomas Hardy has captured my imagination since a high school reading of Jude the Obscure. I return to him often, and there’s always a minor novel or two I’ve missed. Below is “The Oxen,” among my favorite holiday lyrics.

Christmas Eve, and twelve of the clock.
“Now they are all on their knees,”
An elder said as we sat in a flock
By the embers in hearthside ease.

 

We pictured the meek mild creatures where
They dwelt in their strawy pen,
Nor did it occur to one of us there
To doubt they were kneeling then.

 

So fair a fancy few would weave
In these years! Yet, I feel,
If someone said on Christmas Eve,
“Come; see the oxen kneel,

 

“In the lonely barton by yonder coomb
Our childhood used to know,”
I should go with him in the gloom,
Hoping it might be so.

Merry Christmas.

‘What‘s worse, she’s much too small…’

Writing in the mid twentieth century, May Swenson remains too little known; Elizabeth Bishop, Sylvia Plath, and Marianne Moore absorb the oxygen, I suppose, for you can’t have more than one discussion about a female poet at a time.

“Sleeping Boa,” published posthumously, is one of her unabashed homosexual love poems.

I show her how to put her arms around me,
but she’s much too small.
What’s worse, she doesn’t understand.
And
although she lies beside me, sticking
out her tongue, it’s herself she licks.

She likes my stroking hand.
And
even lets me kiss.
But at my demand:
“Now, do it to me, like this,”
she backs off with a hiss.

What’s in her little mind?
Jumping off the bed,
she shows me her behind,
but curls up on the rug instead.
I beg her to return. At first, she did,
then went and hid

under the covers. She’s playing with my feet!
“Oh, Boa, come back. Be sweet,
Lie against me here where I’m nice and warm.
Settle down. Don’t claw, don’t bite.
Stay with me tonight.”
Seeming to consent, she gives a little whine.

Her deep, deep pupils meet mine
with a look that holds a flood …
But not my brand.
Not at all.
And,
what‘s worse, she’s much too small.

Happy December

‘The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall’

Killed a century ago a week before the warring powers signed the armistice, Wilfred Owen emerged from the Great War as its foremost poet, a versifier of great suppleness. His sexuality remains a matter of conjecture, fueled by his appearance in the Sitwell-Robert Ross literary circle. As anthologized as “Anthem for a Doomed Youth” is, it hasn’t aged a comma.

What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles’ rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.

 

What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls’ brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.

Happy Armistice Day.

‘No one believes it is happening now’

For me November signals the end of the beginning: after elections come Veterans Day, my birthday, Thanksgiving, and what remains of the school semester. This November seems apocalyptic. That’s when I reach for my Czeslaw Milosz and “A Song on the End of the World.”

On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspout young sparrows are playing
And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.

On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,
The voice of a violin lasts in the air
And leads into a starry night.

And those who expected lightning and thunder
Are disappointed.
And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and the moon are above,
As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,
As long as rosy infants are born
No one believes it is happening now.

Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet
Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
There will be no other end of the world,
There will be no other end of the world.

Good luck.

‘…Everything/remains to create my alibi’

Peruvian poet César Vallejo wrote a number of excellent sonnets. “Paris, October 1936” addresses my mood these days.

From all of this I am the only one who leaves.
From this bench I go away, from my pants,
from my great situation, from my actions,
from my number split side to side,
from all of this I am the only one who leaves.

From the Champs Elysées or as the strange
alley of the Moon makes a turn,
my death goes away, my cradle leaves,
and, surrounded by people, alone, cut loose,
my human resemblance turns around
and dispatches its shadows one by one.

And I move away from everything, since everything
remains to create my alibi:
my shoe, its eyelet, as well as its mud
and even the bend in the elbow
of my own buttoned shirt.

Happy second week of October!

‘But for us, she said, you wouldn’t exist…’

At times vaporous or prosaic, Louise Glück nevertheless remains among the best known of American poets. 1990’s Ararat is her strongest work, but the recently published Collected Poems is one of those bricks that anyone with an interest in poetry will display on a shelf. I selected “Visitors from Abroad” for this month’s poem.

Happy October.

Sometime after I had entered
that time of life
people prefer to allude to in others
but not in themselves, in the middle of the night
the phone rang. It rang and rang
as though the world needed me,
though really it was the reverse.

I lay in bed, trying to analyze
the ring. It had
my mother’s persistence and my father’s
pained embarrassment.

When I picked it up, the line was dead.
Or was the phone working and the caller dead?
Or was it not the phone, but the door perhaps?

2

My mother and father stood in the cold
on the front steps. My mother stared at me,
a daughter, a fellow female.
You never think of us, she said.

We read your books when they reach heaven.
Hardly a mention of us anymore, hardly a mention of  your sister.
And they pointed to my dead sister, a complete stranger,
tightly wrapped in my mother’s arms.

But for us, she said, you wouldn’t exist.
And your sister — you have your sister’s soul.
After which they vanished, like Mormon missionaries.

3

The street was white again,
all the bushes covered with heavy snow
and the trees glittering, encased with ice.

I lay in the dark, waiting for the night to end.
It seemed the longest night I had ever known,
longer than the night I was born.

I write about you all the time, I said aloud.
Every time I say “I,” it refers to you.

4

Outside the street was silent.
The receiver lay on its side among the tangled sheets,
its peevish throbbing had ceased some hours before.

I left it as it was;
its long cord drifting under the furniture.

I watched the snow falling,
not so much obscuring things
as making them seem larger than they were.

Who would call in the middle of the night?
Trouble calls, despair calls.
Joy is sleeping like a baby.

‘Joyous and jubilant and sure’

Many poets, amateurs and pros, would cross “massively” out in the fourth draft. Wallace Stevens understood what he was doing. He also left “joyous” and “jubilant” in the same verse.

Last evening the moon rose above this rock
Impure upon a world unpurged.
The man and his companion stopped
To rest before the heroic height.

Coldly the wind fell upon them
In many majesties of sound:
They that had left the flame-freaked sun
To seek a sun of fuller fire.

Instead there was this tufted rock
Massively rising high and bare
Beyond all trees, the ridges thrown
Like giant arms among the clouds.

There was neither voice nor crested image,
No chorister, nor priest. There was
Only the great height of the rock
And the two of them standing still to rest.

There was the cold wind and the sound
It made, away from the muck of the land
That they had left, heroic sound
Joyous and jubilant and sure.

Here are clips of Stevens in the 1950s, at the peak of his fame, reading some poems. Happy Sunday.

‘He did not love me living…’

Better known these days than her brother Dante Gabriel, Christina Rossetti has seen her stock grow as feminist criticism has re-examined her long poem Goblin Market. Her devotional poems remain delights, and when she wrote about death, as she often did, it was with a sweet sigh, an acquiescence to the inevitable.

Below is “After Death.” Happy September.

The curtains were half drawn, the floor was swept
And strewn with rushes, rosemary and may
Lay thick upon the bed on which I lay,
Where through the lattice ivy-shadows crept.
He leaned above me, thinking that I slept
And could not hear him; but I heard him say,
‘Poor child, poor child’: and as he turned away
Came a deep silence, and I knew he wept.
He did not touch the shroud, or raise the fold
That hid my face, or take my hand in his,
Or ruffle the smooth pillows for my head:
He did not love me living; but once dead
He pitied me; and very sweet it is
To know he still is warm though I am cold.

‘Summer, do your worst!’

Dorothy Parker has a few things to say about the hottest month. Happy July:

When my eyes are weeds,
And my lips are petals, spinning
Down the wind that has beginning
Where the crumpled beeches start
In a fringe of salty reeds;
When my arms are elder-bushes,
And the rangy lilac pushes
Upward, upward through my heart;

Summer, do your worst!
Light your tinsel moon, and call on
Your performing stars to fall on
Headlong through your paper sky;
Nevermore shall I be cursed
By a flushed and amorous slattern,
With her dusty laces’ pattern
Trailing, as she straggles by.

‘Quiet’s cool flesh— let’s sniff and eat it’

A Pulitzer Prize winner and poet laureate of Virginia who came of age aesthetically during a moment when the times demanded anything but a long poem about her grandparents, Rita Dove has also written excellent lyric verse too. But she pisses people off; even so estimable a critic as Helen Vendler spluttered over Dove’s editorial selections for 2011’s The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, prompting a well-reasoned defense from Dove.

Below is Rita Dove’s “Flirtation.” Happy July.

After all, there’s no need
to say anything

at first. An orange, peeled
and quartered, flares

like a tulip on a wedgewood plate
Anything can happen.

Outside the sun
has rolled up her rugs

and night strewn salt
across the sky. My heart

is humming a tune
I haven’t heard in years!

Quiet’s cool flesh—
let’s sniff and eat it.

There are ways
to make of the moment

a topiary
so the pleasure’s in

walking through.