Tag Archives: Poetry

‘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.