‘Turn and look once more/And smite a rock” — a Good Friday poem

In eighth grade relatives could measure my devotion by the clack of rosary beads. I lived close enough to St. Brendan to walk. The rest of Holy Week — undeveloped, I thought. What about Holy Monday and Holy Tuesday? Thus the intensity of my devotion during what I call my Stephen Dedalus period. The sacrifice of Christ I felt in my corpuscles, a Method acting so thorough that when the belief vaporized I blinked like a man who has stepped out of a smoke-filled room.

Yet, to rewrite one of Wallace Stevens’ profoundest lines, the absence of faith had itself to be imagined. I cling to memories of the ritual. To get wistful about the contours of a devotion I no longer feel is bizarre, I’ll wager. Christina Rossetti’s “Good Friday” limns this peculiarity.

Am I a stone, and not a sheep,
That I can stand, O Christ, beneath Thy cross,
To number drop by drop Thy blood’s slow loss,
And yet not weep?

Not so those women loved
Who with exceeding grief lamented Thee;
Not so fallen Peter weeping bitterly;
Not so the thief was moved;

Not so the Sun and Moon
Which hid their faces in a starless sky,
A horror of great darkness at broad noon –
I, only I.

Yet give not o’er,
But seek Thy sheep, true Shepherd of the flock;
Greater than Moses, turn and look once more
And smite a rock.

Uh, happy Good Friday?

‘O wrong, wrong—it was my nature’

“I want to substitute tone for fact,” poet Louise Glück revealed in a 2014 interview. “If you can get right the tone, it will be dense with ideas; you don’t initially know fully what they are, but you want by the end to know fully what they are or you won’t have made an exciting work. For me it’s tone—the way the mind moves as it performs its acts of meditation.” For three decades, Glück has struggled with the labor of turning tone into fact. Judging by their presence on Barnes & Noble’s meager poetry shelves, her nineties collections Ararat, The Wild Iris and Meadowlands remain her best-known work. I take “The Empty Glass” from 2001’s The Seven Ages:

I asked for much; I received much.
I asked for much; I received little, I received
next to nothing.

And between? A few umbrellas opened indoors.
A pair of shoes by mistake on the kitchen table.

O wrong, wrong—it was my nature. I was
hard-hearted, remote. I was
selfish, rigid to the point of tyranny.

But I was always that person, even in early childhood.
Small, dark-haired, dreaded by the other children.
I never changed. Inside the glass, the abstract
tide of fortune turned
from high to low overnight.

Was it the sea? Responding, maybe,
to celestial force? To be safe,
I prayed. I tried to be a better person.
Soon it seemed to me that what began as terror
and matured into moral narcissism
might have become in fact
actual human growth. Maybe
this is what my friends meant, taking my hand,
telling me they understood
the abuse, the incredible shit I accepted,
implying (so I once thought) I was a little sick
to give so much for so little.
Whereas they meant I was good (clasping my hand intensely)—
a good friend and person, not a creature of pathos.

I was not pathetic! I was writ large,
like a queen or a saint.

Well, it all makes for interesting conjecture.
And it occurs to me that what is crucial is to believe
in effort, to believe some good will come of simply trying,
a good completely untainted by the corrupt initiating impulse
to persuade or seduce—

What are we without this?
Whirling in the dark universe,
alone, afraid, unable to influence fate—

What do we have really?
Sad tricks with ladders and shoes,
tricks with salt, impurely motivated recurring
attempts to build character.
What do we have to appease the great forces?

And I think in the end this was the question
that destroyed Agamemnon, there on the beach,
the Greek ships at the ready, the sea
invisible beyond the serene harbor, the future
lethal, unstable: he was a fool, thinking
it could be controlled. He should have said
I have nothing, I am at your mercy.

Happy February.

‘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!