Archive for May, 2010

Those Winter Sundays

by Robert Hayden

Sundays too my father got up early

and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,

then with cracked hands that ached

from labor in the weekday weather made

banked fires blaze.  No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.

When the rooms were warm, he’d call,

and slowly I would rise and dress,

fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him

who had driven out the cold

and polished my good shoes as well.

What did I know, what did I know

of love’s austere and lonely offices?

“Love’s austere and lonely offices” is a phrase I’ve carried around for years.  It pops up whenever I see a person quietly doing drudge work for someone else. If I see an older man shoveling the driveway—well looky there, love’s austere and lonely offices. Mothers schlumping through grocery stores—aisle 4, love’s austere and lonely offices. People who work jobs they dislike to support their families–l.a. & l.o’s, of course.

While the poem is about Robert Hayden’s foster father, it could describe a whole generation of fathers who have all but disappeared:  the strong silent types who shut themselves off from the emotional life of their families, men trained to show love through work and sacrifice.  They thought little of their own comforts, they never bought things for themselves, they patched up the house with duct tape and saved money for education. There’s much to admire in those men and much to grieve for.  All the affection they missed, giving and getting.

My own father died this past January.   He was a complicated, difficult and amazing person.  I find it’s hard to write about him.  But Robert Hayden, who never met my father, who grew up in a slum, who lived through traumas far removed from my suburban upbringing, somehow captures my feelings about my father in a way I can’t.  I loved this poem the first time I read it, and now I love it even more.

I hid “Those Winter Sundays” on a Friday morning under the sun visor of my sister’s car a few months after Dad passed away.  She didn’t find it till the weekend was almost over, which made every ride in her car an exercise in laughter suppression.  I gave this poem to her in particular, because as a nurse she administers love’s offices everyday; but more because she was kind and sweet and necessary to my father in his decline. Cheers, M.K.

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At the Un-National Monument Along the Canadian Border

by William Stafford

This is the field where the battle did not happen,
where the unknown soldier did not die.
This is the field where grass joined hands,
where no monument stands,
and the only heroic thing is the sky.

Birds fly here without any sound,
unfolding their wings across the open.
No people killed-or were killed-on this ground
hallowed by neglect and an air so tame
that people celebrate it by forgetting its name.

The matching of poem to location lacks subtlety, I know:  an anti-war poem within strolling distance of the new WWII monument, the more modest D.C. War memorial, the spooky Korean War Veterans memorial and of course the Vietnam Veterans Memorial.  But I couldn’t resist.  Down the hill from the Washington Monument heading towards the Lincoln Memorial was a stumpy mini-obelisk perfect to quickly affix a poem, take a picture and not draw attention.  My initial thought was to mark a spot for poet William Stafford to commemorate the opposite of all these monuments to war.

Stafford was a conscientious objector in WWII, a registered pacifist.  (Which strikes me as funny—what forms do you fill out to register a character trait?  Other than registered sex offenders, are there other types officially labeled and licensed?  How about a registered nut factory?  Or–I’m sorry I can’t volunteer at school today because I’m a registered crankpot.)

While I do really like this poem and honor its peace-loving intentions, I have two thoughts that I didn’t have before I put the poem where I did. How do I know, how did Stafford know, that in the whole history of life–human, animal and insect–no one actually did kill on this spot? Yeats seems more correct that “under every dancer/a dead man in his grave.”  Obviously there’s a difference between being dead and being killed.   But the food chain alone guarantees killing.

My second thought is that this pacifist poem looks out on monuments to two wars which were truly necessary to end an evil.   Without WWII, Hitler would have carried out his Final Solution; and without the Civil War, slavery might have continued a few more decades.  (I’m not a historian but I play one on TV.)

At the Lincoln Memorial, which I visited after posting this poem, I was particularly moved by the words of the Gettysburg address, imprinted on the wall to Lincoln’s right:  “We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we do this.  But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”

Many times I’ve read those words before but they meant something to me for the first time the day I posted William Stafford’s poem nearby. And that’s the value of keeping opposing positions in shoulder-rubbing distance.

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That's the Jefferson Memorial in the background

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now

by A.E. Housman

Loveliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.
And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

I visited my mother three days after Easter with a plan to see the cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin and in Kenwood, a neighborhood in Maryland that for two weeks every year is one of the most magical places on earth. As a child I thought it was a fairyland.  We would get out of the car and walk under a tent of pink trees that covered the width of the street. We kicked up thick layers of pale velvety blossoms and threw the petals at each other like confetti.  I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anything so lovely.  This April I was sure I would see the cherry blossoms again—I would arrive only two days past the peak.  Alas, the trees in Kenwood were green with a only a hint of pink, and those at the Tidal Basin, where I posted this poem, had all but lost their delicate coloring.  I wasn’t completely disappointed in the outing, though, because the sight of my 84-year old mother enjoying herself in a Tidal Basin paddle boat was a treat in itself.

I love this little poem but it’s always confused me.  All that math!  Turns out my confusion sprang from a misapprehension of Housman’s age.  I thought that he was three score year and ten, or less poetically, 70.  And 70 minus 20 is 50, the additional years he says he has to enjoy the blossoms.  Was he assuming that he’d live to be 120?  No, but I was.  Thanks to a little internet research, I now understand that threescore year and ten is a biblical reference to the average lifetime.  So Housman has just passed 20 and is thinking of the 50 years he has left before he dies at 70 and never sees cherry blossoms again.  I guess this shows that you don’t have to fully understand a poem to enjoy it—understanding can come over time.  And also that math can make me a complete idiot.

Housman actually lived to be 76, so he got in six more springs with the cherry blossoms than he had anticipated.

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The Clothes Pin

by Jane Kenyon

How much better it is

to carry wood to the fire

than to moan about your life.

How much better

to throw the garbage

onto the compost, or to pin the clean

sheet on the line

with a gray-brown wooden clothes pin!

Did I really think a lonely and despondent teenager would come across this poem, drop his backpack and shout joyfully, “Dude!  Get me to a woodpile!”?  Ah well, we all have our little fantasies. Unfortunately I posted the poem on a Saturday, and it rained heavily all the next day.  “The Clothes Pin” could have used a clothes pin of its own to dry out.

Still, the connections and disconnections between this poem and the high school it landed in gave me some pleasure.  Jane Kenyon grew up 45 minutes from this school and attended a nearby university where the most gifted students here will probably also attend.  She suffered depression, so her version of “better to light a candle than curse the darkness” carries weight and strikes me as useful advice for teens experiencing the normal downturns of mood and energy. And finally, she died when she was my age—47—of leukemia, which is where the connections stop and the disconnections begin.

Positioning this poem, with its rural images of firewood, compost piles and the air-dried sheet, in an institutional setting was intentional.  The world of this hardy little poem is as foreign to the world of smart boards, processed cafeteria food and security guards as the silence that surrounds it is to an ipod generation.  I find the same comforts in reading Kenyon as I do in the essays of New York Times columnist Verlyn Klinkenborg.  Their writings about life in the country become a resting place for me.

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The Coming of Light

By Mark Strand

Even this late it happens:

the coming of love, the coming of light.

You wake and the candles are lit as if by themselves,

stars gather, dreams pour into your pillows,

sending up warm bouquets of air.

Even this late the bones of the body shine

and tomorrow’s dust flares into breath.

Why do I never see anyone my age at the gyno’s?  The waiting room always seems full of young women reading magazines I’ve long passed the demographic for, or pregnant ones easing their swollen bodies into chairs too small to hold them.  Makes me feel dried up.  This poem is for the women I don’t see at the gyno’s, the ones who feel invisible, the ones who think they’re past their prime, the ones whose ovaries are shriveling.

I posted this poem, my first one, in late March on a bitterly cold but sunny day.  It seemed appropriate for a new adventure in mid-life.  When I returned the next day, I laughed when I saw the poem still taped to the yellow post. I can’t explain why it made me so happy. But it did and it still does.

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