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Archive for October, 2011

poem is on the back of the menu

Refusing at Fifty-Two to Write Sonnets

 

 

 

by Thomas Lynch

 

 

 

It came to him that he could nearly count

 

How many Octobers he had left to him

 

In increments of ten or, say, eleven

 

Thus: sixty-three, seventy-four, eighty-five.

 

He couldn’t see himself at ninety-six—

 

Humanity’s advances notwithstanding

 

In health-care, self-help, or new-age regimens—

 

What with his habits and family history,

 

The end he thought is nearer than you think.

 

 

 

The future, thus confined to its contingencies,

 

The present moment opens like a gift:

 

The balding month, the grey week, the blue morning,

 

The hour’s routine, the minute’s passing glance—

 

All seem like godsends now. And what to make of this?

 

At the end the word that comes to him is Thanks.

 

 

0805 [Doris Day] DANCING_(c)_Leo_Fuchs_Photography_(www.leofuchs.com)(www.theheliosgallery.com) by The Helios Gallery

 

This poem has me thinking about Doris Day, and not just because I think poet Thomas Lynch is adorable.  (Imagine Jack Black balding, gray and bespectacled.)  In so many of her movies, Doris Day begins with a firm resolve–I will not fall for a womanizing phone-hog I despise, I will not fall for a newspaper editor who doesn’t respect education, I will not fall for the pajama factory foreman who won’t give the workers the raise they deserve—and then she’s duped into falling in love with the very men she and her perky principles had refused to consider.

 

And so with this poem.  The poet who refuses to write sonnets has written a sonnet.

 

Granted,  “Refusing at Fifty-Two to Write Sonnets” is not technically a sonnet.  From what I gather, a sonnet has four defining characteristics:

  1. has 14 lines
  2. has a specific rhyming pattern, depending on whether it’s Petrarchan, Spenserian, or Shakespearian.
  3. usually written in iambic pentameter
  4. operates on what is called “the turn.”  The first part sets forth a question, emotion or issue, and the second half responds in some way, resolving or contradicting.

 

Lynch’s poem misses two of the four criteria.  “Refusing” has 15 lines and has no rhyme at all, beyond the clever consonant rhyme of “think” and “thanks,” the two words which end each section of the poem.

 

But Lynch has something up his sleeve here.  The poem is written mostly in iambic pentameter, and 15 lines is so close to 14 that methinks he doth protest too much.  If a poet were really intent on not writing a sonnet, he would likely come up with something more like Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, pages and pages of long, loose lines.

 

Besides, it’s “the turn” that’s at the heart of a sonnet, and the turn here is so clear it could be marked with flashing lights and a “Street Closed” sign.  The poem physically separates at the tenth line; the verb tense changes from past to present; and most important, the mood changes from resignation and dread to gratitude.

 

In the first stanza, a man who seems to be a poet wonders how many years, at age 52, he has left to live. He tries to count them but numbers so overwhelm him that he loses count of his sonnet and writes nine lines instead of eight.  His overthinking about the future (remember that this stanza ends with “think”) keeps him in the grips of a morbid mood.

 

The turn in the second stanza moves into the present.  He gives a wonderful description of October:

the balding month, the grey week, the blue morning,

lines which describe himself and his mood as well.

 

From the month, he moves to the week, then the time of day, and finally to the very moment (the minute’s passing glance) within which he exists.  Only then is he able to move beyond his fear of death and feel gratitude for living.

 

If you’ve ever escaped from a health crisis or scare, a sudden brush with death, or as in the case of this poem a self-induced death watch, you understand the gratitude expressed at the end of this poem.  All the sudden you realize that right now at this moment you’re alive.  You get up from your knees, from your trembling and nauseau, and you can’t believe how wonderful the world is.  Life is so great!  Wake up, wake up!  you want to say to everyone who complains about  little things like dreary weather, inconveniences, annoying people.  Life’s a marvel, even the falling leaves, the rain clouds, the dark mornings. So great!

QUE BELLO ES VIVIR by mueredecine

 

But because the poet is not George Bailey pulled back from the bridge all wild-eyed with happiness, but Thomas Lynch, wry and bemused, the turn in this poem is quiet.  Thanks.  Emotion is contained.  The containment is partly because Lynch is Irish, and the Irish are champs at containing emotion, but also because sonnets are champs at containing emotions.  Writing a sonnet places limits on the writer—limits of line length, meter and structure—and those limits allow an expression of deep emotion that is very civilized.  Would that all problems could be so contained.

 

“Scorn not the sonnet,” Wordsworth wrote.  I’m sure Lynch would agree, so what to make of his refusal to write one?  For one, he seems impish and doesn’t like to do what’s expected.  He counts by elevens rather than the standard ten.  He writes 15 lines instead of 14, perhaps because he wants more.  The first stanza is about the limits of the years he has left on earth.  He wants to go over the limit.  Life is too big, even at 52, to follow prescriptions.

 

(Interesting that another meditation on the same themes of autumn and death, Hopkins’ “Spring and Fall to a Young Child,” is also, at 15 lines, an almost-sonnet.)

 

Anyone writing about Lynch has to figure out how to put a fresh spin on the fact that he’s an undertaker and a poet.  There, I said it.  Lynch himself draws the best parallels between his two professions.  In an interview he once said, “It is the same enterprise: to organize some response to what is unspeakable. We need a way to say unspeakable things, and funerals do. So do poems.”

 

I have a special feeling towards Thomas Lynch.  I’m inclined to like anyone who shares my background, that is, Irish and Catholic, but he’s also a funny and wise writer, and a native of Detroit.  He went to the same high school my son just graduated from, and his book of essays, The Undertaking, is a favorite of mine.

 

Born in 1948, Lynch splits his time between his hometown of Milford, where the funeral home Lynch and Sons still operates, and County Clare, Ireland.  He’s won a number of awards for his poetry and his essays.  If you ever get a chance to hear him read, go.  He’s entertaining as only the Irish can be.

 

Okay, enough with the Irish.

 

I left the poem in a local watering hole.  It was a dark place, with all the trappings of a man’s gathering space, big screen televisions, wood paneling and brass rails.  At the bar three or four men slumped in front of their beers.  It all felt sad to me, and I found only irony in the lines which appear under the poem in my photograph:  “Great places, good times.” But then again I’m Irish and inclined to darkness.

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poem got sucked into the doorway

 

Ode to Age

 

by Pablo Neruda

 

I don’t believe in age.

 

All old people

carry

in their eyes,

a child,

and children,

at times

observe us with the

eyes of wise ancients.

 

Shall we measure

life

in meters or kilometers

or months?

How far since you were born?

How long

must you wander

until

like all men

instead of walking on its surface

we rest below the earth?

 

To the man, to the woman

who utilized their

energies, goodness, strength,

anger, love, tenderness,

to those who truly

alive

flowered,

and in their sensuality matured,

let us not apply

the measure

of a time

that may be

something else, a mineral

mantle, a solar

bird, a flower,

something, maybe,

but not a measure.

 

Time, metal

or bird, long

petiolate flower,

stretch

through

man’s life,

shower him

with blossoms

and with

bright

water

or with hidden sun.

I proclaim you

road,

not shroud,

a pristine

ladder

with treads

of air,

a suit lovingly

renewed

through springtimes

around the world.

 

Now,

time, I roll you up

I deposit you in my

bait box

and I am off to fish

with your long line

the fishes of the dawn!

before I re-located it

Mid-October, and summer projects lay flattened at my feet, deflated and tiresome.   The tomatoes not planted, the crab feast not hosted, the badmitton net still in its carrying case, the pedicure unscheduled, the sides of my knees never carefully and cleanly shaven.  Time to officially abandon them all.

 

But one such project I’m determined to finish today.  Ever since March when Professor Dean Rader in the New York Times named Pablo Neruda as the greatest poet of all time, I knew I had to poem elf him, even though I’ve always found Neruda inscrutable.  Last June I placed “Ode to Age” on a 150-year old barn in Shakopee, Minnesota.  And all summer and half into fall I’ve put off a careful reading.

 

So here goes.  “Ode to Age.”  Er.  Uh.  Yeah.  Okay I don’t get it.  Neruda obviously doesn’t value clarity as much as my man Billy Collins.  Or else this poem highlights an underdeveloped part of my brain in the same way moving furniture does.

 

Let me break it down then.  I get the first line.  I don’t believe in age.  Could be on a birthday card underneath a picture of old people tap dancing or canoodling on a merry-go-round or jumping on a trampoline (diapered, of course).

 

The second stanza, I get that too.  Here’s a picture of my beautiful mother (the poem is one of Mary Oliver’s) that’s a good visual representation of the child-like joie de vivre that Neruda says can exist at any age.

 

I start to get lost in the third stanza.  Neruda switches out the expected measurement for age (months, years) for that of distance (meters, kilometers).  How far have you lived and how long have you wandered?  Is this just a novel way of saying, it’s not how long you’ve lived, but how well?

 

By the fourth stanza I’ve lost my foothold, and I haven’t even gotten to the ladder with treads made of air that appears in the fifth stanza.

 

let us not apply

the measure

of a time

that may be

something else, a mineral

mantle, a solar

bird, a flower,

something, maybe,

but not a measure.

What does that mean?  I’m really asking.  I keep banging my head against these lines but the door is jammed.  Please help before I give myself a poetry concussion.

I try to understand by looking up words I don’t know.  Petiolate flower is a flower with leaves that have stems attached to the stalk. Not sure how that makes any difference.

 

Then I turn to the images.  We have a flower, the earth’s mantle, and a bird.  The first dies and comes back to life each spring, the second has existed for billions of years, and the third lives and dies as we do.  So what he’s trying to say is . . . again, help wanted!

 

On to the troublesome fifth stanza.  Either Neruda is off and running on a surrealistic jaunt or he’s purposely mixing metaphors to confuse his readers so much that they are propelled out of conventional ways of looking at time and age.  What I get from it are questions, which is sometimes what poems do.

 

What is a pristine ladder with treads of air?  Why is it pristine?  What is the syntax of these lines:

Time, metal

or bird, long

petiolate flower,

stretch

through

man’s life,

 

that is, are “metal or bird” the appositive of “time,” and are “time” and “flower” the subjects of the verb “stretch”?  Why wouldn’t “flower” also be part of the description of time? Will I ever just give it a rest and go fishing instead?

 

I get the general drift.  Let’s not measure our life by time but by what we’ve seen and experienced along the road.  Neruda will only compose an ode, a song of praise, to age if he re-defines how age is measured.  And in the end it’s better to go fishing than to worry about being old.

 

At the risk of disrespecting the greatest poet of all time, I must admit that the more I read this poem, the less I like it.  “Ode to Age” seems needlessly confusing.  And I can’t really get over using the word “utilize” un-ironically in a poem (could be a translation issue of course).  The only line I love is

 

I proclaim you road

not shroud.

 

a gust or a ghost sucked the poem in the doorway

I thought I was being artistic or at least clever when I carefully placed the poem half in and half out of the doorway of this historic building.  When I released the poem from my fingers, it was sucked inside the crack with an unexpected whoosh.  I couldn’t get it back.  Should I make something of this strange event?  The inaccessibility of the poem?   The old age of the building/tomb?  Nah.  Enough is enough.  In the words of Billy Collins, “beating it with a hose/to find out what it really means” is not what reading poetry is all about.

 

PPABLO NERUDA by riccardo.ilariablo Neruda (1904-1973) was born in Chile and published poems at a young age, despite his family’s disapproval.  He was active in politics, serving in diplomatic posts abroad, and was elected as a senator.  Imagine, a poet who’s electable!  He was a lifelong communist who had to live underground for two years when a right-wing government outlawed communism.  He later escaped Chile through the mountains.  At the end of his life, he helped elect his friend Salvador Allende as president of Chile.  Neruda died days after dictator Pinochet came to power and murdered Allende.  Pinochet tried unsuccessfully to outlaw public mourning for the beloved poet.

 

Gee, poets in other countries sure have exciting lives.

 

Neruda’s poetry has been translated into every major language, and he won the Nobel Prize in 1971.  His influence on 20th century poetry worldwide and his experimentation with poetic forms have given him the name of the Picasso of Poetry.

 

Clearly I have to give him another shot.  I’ll try again later with another poem, a different ode or one of his love poems, one that I have an emotional connection or response to, even if I don’t fully understand it.

 

One more thing:  I’m done with long poems.  Just doesn’t work in a blog format.

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Stanford's 15,000-line epic poem

My last post on poet Frank Stanford (I just typed in “Frank Suicide,” which shows you where my head is) was overly long for a blog entry, so I cut myself off before I finished exploring his life.  I’ll finish today and hopefully will put him and his dark charms behind me because this guy has a grip on me.  No wonder he’s a cult figure.  Not only is his poetry arresting and fresh even 33 years after his death, his life is just waiting for a movie script.

 

I can’t say that I would have liked him—a guy whose idea of party fun is to point at each person in a circle saying, “I like you,” and “I don’t like you,” is someone I would avoid.  But I feel the pull. The restless energy behind his good looks comes through in the few available photographs of him.  Stanford was “handsome as the sun,” poet C.D. Wright said of him.  Poet (and Stanford mentor) Miller Williams said he looked like a young Charlton Heston.  And Stanford’s friend novelist Ellen Gilchrist has said that to know him was to understand how Jesus got his followers.

 

(Confession:  I’ve spent much more time digging into his life than reading his poems.  As I keep saying, I’m not an academic, I just dress like one.)

 

Actually, the lives surrounding Stanford fascinate me as much as his own, and those are the lives I’m going to write about today.

 

Stanford’s suicide was precipitated by a confrontation with his wife, painter Ginny Stanford (Crouch) and his lover, poet C.D. Wright.  He lived with Wright even as he visited his wife every week, promising they’d get back together.  After an argument with Crouch and possibly with Wright (she was in the house but it’s unclear to me whether she was part of the fight), Stanford walked back into his bedroom, closed the door, unbuttoned his shirt and shot himself three times in the heart.

 

Shooting oneself three times in the heart when just one would do speaks of an outsized passion and ambition.  That passion and ambition extended to his love life.  Stanford was more than a mere two-timing husband.  At the time of his death he was juggling at least six women.  One of them, I’ve discovered, was the great singer/songwriter Lucinda Williams.   (My husband has long been a huge fan of Lucinda Williams.  I’m just getting to know her and have found that her life and talent seem as big and colorful as Stanford’s.)

 

Williams’ relationship with Stanford was just a fling, she said in an interview I read.  She seemed ashamed of it, ashamed of being taken in by his charm.   She wrote a beautiful song, “Pineola,” about hearing the news of Stanford’s suicide from her father Miller Williams.  (Miller Williams, by the way, delivered the poem at Clinton’s second inauguration.)  A sampling of the lyrics (listen to the song here) gives an idea of the numbness that follows such news:

I could not speak a single word

No tears streamed down my face

I just sat there on the living room couch

Starin’ off into space

 

and later at the cemetery:

 

Some of us, we stood in silence

Some bowed their heads and prayed

I think I must’ve picked up a handful of dust

And let it fall over his grave

 

Stanford’s philandering is not to his credit, but the type of women he pursued is.  Unlike another notorious womanizer, Tiger Williams, he seems to have liked the company of equals, artists and creative types.  His wife Ginny Crouch, an Arkansas native as was he, is a painter of note.  She painted the official portrait of another one-time Arkansas resident, Hillary Clinton, and several of one of my favorite writers, M.F.K. Fisher. Clinton’s portrait hangs in the National Portrait Gallery and Fisher’s in the Smithsonian.

Senator Hillary Clinton by sftrajanM.F.K. Fisher, 1991 by Maulleigh

Crouch has also illustrated book covers for writer Ellen Gilchrist, a close friend of Frank Stanford’s and someone he mentored.  Gilchrist has written extensively about a character who strongly resembles Stanford.

C.D. Wright by anthologist

 

His lover of the last three years of his life, C.D. Wright, yet another Arkansian, is a poet in her own right.  She and Stanford started Lost Roads Publishing, and she continued to direct it after his death.  I like her poetry more and more.  Here’s an excerpt from Wright’s “Our Dust,” a poem that gives a strong sense of the place all these Arkansas characters come from:

 

 

 

 

I was the poet

of shadow work and towns with quarter-inch

phone books, of failed

roadside zoos. The poet of yard eggs and

sharpening shops,

jobs at the weapons plant and the Maybelline

factory on the penitentiary road.

 

Lucinda Williams, Ginny Stanford, C.D. Wright, Ellen Gilchrist—these women’s careers have outlasted Stanford’s, and dare I say outshined it.  At least for the moment.  A biography, a re-issue of his books, more work printed in anthologies, and hopefully a movie someday will give him the cultural presence he deserves.  Meanwhile he waits in relative obscurity to be resurrected as the women in his life continue creating.

 

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poem is on concrete wall in foreground

Blue Yodel of those Who Were Always Telling Me

 

by Frank Stanford

 

 

You look like you just woke up

 

What did you do last night

sleep in the fields

 

Now all ofyou who ride the schoolbus

during deer season be sure

and duck down on the backroads

 

Get on out of here

 

Honey Mama Julinda gone fix your eye

 

Sign my yearbook Don’t

write anything like you did in Beth’s

 

You know you can’t come in my theatre

unless you got shoes on

 

Bait my hook that’s what I’m paying you for

 

Why don’t you go to Memphis

and buy your clothes

 

Take it from me

 

I ever catch you talking like that with my wife

I’ll kill you you little shit

 

Frankie I love you really I do

with all my heart Do you

love me

 

Quit drinking son

 

You talk like a river boat gambler

You look like one

 

You talk like a queer

sometimes

Let me smell your fingers

 

Did you and one Billy Richard Willet

steal the undertaker’s pick-up

break into the Junior Prom drunk

and thereby commence to dance together

like Russians on the gymnasium floor

boots and all or not

 

Can’t you run over one measly guard

Put your heart in it

 

Say the five Sorrowful Mysteries

every night

 

O come ye sons and daughters of art

 

Bull

 

Is she stumpbroke yet

 

The language he loves best is the silent . . .

 

Do you want me to tell her father

about you two and the Drive Inn

 

Had enough yet

 

You’re no more eighteen than the man

in the moon

 

I just felt sorry for you

because you didn’t have any folks

 

Over my dead body

 

In what year did Lord Byron write

Fare Thee Well

 

Go in peace

 

Shape up or ship out

 

Get off your high horse

Now get up

 

I say together we stand

divided we fall

 

You know what this means

 

You can bury my body down by the side

of the highway Lord my old spirit

can flag a Trailways bus and ride

 

Did you actually read this poem?  I thought not.  I don’t usually post such long poems for that very reason.  But do yourself a favor when you’re done with my musings, and go back and read “Blue Yodel.”

 

It’s a breezy read, but the poem does make demands of its readers.  Stanford has drawn a self-portrait using only what other people “were always telling” him, and it’s the reader’s job to fill in the lines and connect the dots.  Kind of like detective work.

 

“You are what you hear” is an interesting idea (but in my case would create a dull poem.  Who wants to read Can I have a ride home now? and Why aren’t there ever any clean towels in this house?)

 

So what can we deduce about Stanford?  The diction and proper nouns in the poem suggest he’s from the south.  He lost his parents at a young enough age that all the other adults in his life feel justified in endlessly giving him directives.  He was raised Catholic, but preferred art as his religion.  (Notice the juxtaposition of the joyful O come ye sons and daughters of art with the droning Say the five Sorrowful Mysteries/every night.)

He’s a rake, a ladies’ man, a hellraiser, a drinker and a smoker. One of the funniest lines of the poem comes after an adult asks him if he stole a hearse to go to the junior prom, and then adds or not. Another amusing bit is Let me smell your fingers, a line parents of teens might want to co-opt.  He gets in fights, but that aggression doesn’t carry over to the football field (can’t you run over one measly guard).

 

Only twice in the poem are the words he hears soothing or celebratory.  Mama Julinda tenderly cares for his bruised eye, and an unknown voice calls him to the artistic life.  Every other voice is badgering, needling, and buzz-killing.  Depending on your point of view, he’s either a rebel without a cause or a young man with a persecution complex.  He perceives adults as having the wrong priorities.  They worry about appearances—his clothes, his hair, his bare feet—while they crush his soul.  Even his English teacher, usually a sympathetic figure for burgeoning artists, is clueless about what’s important.  The teacher focuses on the date Byron’s  “Fare Thee Well” was written rather than the poem itself.  This is a bit of genius on Stanford’s part.   “Fare Thee Well” was addressed to Byron’s young wife when he left her.   Left her forever.  Just after she gave birth.  The reference pulls in callous behavior, fatherless children, and tone-deaf adults in one full sweep.

 

Even the blessing at the end of mass, “Go in peace,” comes off as one more annoying thing he’s supposed to do.  Stanford is able to upend the meaning of those words, go in peace, by placing them next to a lot of militaristic barking.

 

There are a few obscure references in the poem, some personal (what’s the missing noun in the language he loves best is the silent . . . ?) and some regional (are clothes from Memphis worse or better than what he wears?).  But not fully understanding the references doesn’t take away from an understanding of what it feels like to be a young man besieged by commands, demands and insults.  And here’s the rub for all us nagging parents:  whatever is asked and however often, this kid is not complying.

 

The nagging becomes wordless noise, like the sound of adults in Charlie Brown movies, like the blue yodel of the title.  A blue yodel is just what it sounds like.  Jimmie Rodgers, considered the Father of Country Music, popularized the Blue Yodel in the 30’s, borrowing the style from Swiss and black singers.  (You can hear it here.) In the poem, the blue yodel is a keening sound, a ululation that punctuates the life it sucks away.

 

List poems like this seem easy to write.  We write lists all the time, with no more effort than it takes to remember that the orange juice is running low.  But the effortlessness is deceiving.  Stanford is more like a composer of orchestral music, bringing in different voices, blending them, highlighting one against the other.  The voices seem to direct themselves.  The poet seems invisible.  And yet there is structure, movement and meaning in the poem.  “Blue Yodel” spans the arc of a day, from morning to night, opening and closing with a trip on a bus.  The announcement about the school bus begins the ride towards death that ends the poem:

 

Lord my old spirit/can flag a Trailways bus and ride

 

 Now for the facts.  Stanford was born in 1948 in Mississippi but spent most of his life in Arkansas.  He was adopted at birth in strange circumstances.  (His single biological mother, Dorothy  Smith, shared a first name with his single adoptive mother.  How often did single mothers adopt in the 40’s?  Was the adoption a ruse to save face for his mother?  The orphanage burned to the ground in 1964, so we’ll never know.)  His adoptive mother later married, but his stepfather died when he was a teen.

 

Stanford played football, went to boarding school at a Benedictine monastery, and studied civil engineering at the University of Arkansas.  A professor there pulled him out of an undergraduate poetry class into a graduate level one.  He was a wonder boy, earning praise from established poets, but he dropped out before he got a degree.  He worked as a land surveyor while writing poems and stories, and having love affairs and several marriages.  Women flocked to him.  Looking at photographs of him, I can see the appeal.  Mark Ruffalo could play him in a bio-pic.  If you like your poets full of whiskey, charm, and angst, he’s your man.

 

I left “Blue Yodel” in a quiet quad at University of Michigan on a spectacular fall day.  At the time I knew nothing of Stanford’s life.  I only saw the humor in the poem and thought college students could relate to this litany of annoying authoritarian voices.

 

But then I read about Stanford’s death.  Now the poem reads very differently.

Stanford committed suicide when he was 29 years old.   After confessing to his wife that he was having an affair, he went into the bedroom and shot himself three times in the heart.  (How do you shoot yourself in the chest three times?  Wouldn’t you be dead or fainting after the first shot?  Anyway, there’s such a story here that I’m going to write about it my next post.)

 

This poem was published posthumously, under what circumstances I don’t know.   But publication seems to have given Stanford the last word.  He finally silenced the blue yodel.  (Finally silenced the blue yodel seems a little heavy-handed, I know.  Halloween season must be affecting me.  Beware the blue yodel!)

 

 

 

 

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poem is inside clear bag of clean laundry for the homeless

The Beginning

“Where have I come from, where did you pick me up?” the baby asked

its mother.

She answered, half crying, half laughing, and clasping the

baby to her breast-

“You were hidden in my heart as its desire, my darling.

You were in the dolls of my childhood’s games; and when with

clay I made the image of my god every morning, I made the unmade

you then.

You were enshrined with our household deity, in his worship

I worshipped you.

In all my hopes and my loves, in my life, in the life of my

mother you have lived.

In the lap of the deathless Spirit who rules our home you have

been nursed for ages.

When in girlhood my heart was opening its petals, you hovered

as a fragrance about it.

Your tender softness bloomed in my youthful limbs, like a glow

in the sky before the sunrise.

Heaven’s first darling, twain-born with the morning light, you

have floated down the stream of the world’s life, and at last you

have stranded on my heart.

As I gaze on your face, mystery overwhelms me; you who belong

to all have become mine.

For fear of losing you I hold you tight to my breast. What

magic has snared the world’s treasure in these slender arms of

mine?”

Rabindranath Tagore

hidden in a flowered pillowcase

 

Where do I come from, Mommy? is a question most children ask.  (Usually not, however, as early as the infant in the poem.)  For some parents the question is the chance they’ve been waiting for to expound on ideas ontological or anatomical. For others it’s an uncomfortable confluence of two bugaboo subjects—sexuality and spirituality.

 

Prudish parents of the past might have skirted around the question with talk of birds and bees, a visit from the stork, or a trip to the baby store.  Today’s more enlightened parents (or maybe just more verbose) might discuss mommy and daddy’s “special hug” (is it just me or is this off the charts in the ick factor?) or describe in confusing detail the sperm’s pursuit of the egg.

 

But I can think of no answer to Where do I come from? as beautiful as the one the mother in this poem gives her baby:

When in girlhood my heart was opening its petals, you hovered as a fragrance about it.

 

The poem combines a powerful message of parental love–

What magic has snared the world’s treasure in these slender arms of mine?

with a spiritual claim for the existence of the soul–

In the lap of the deathless Spirit who rules our home you have been nursed for ages

with a nearly scientific explanation–

twin-born with the morning light, you

have floated down the stream of the world’s life, and at last you have stranded on my heart.

 

Or at least I see that as a scientific explanation.  Maybe because I’m the daughter of a physics professor, that line calls up an image of a light wave floating around the universe for eons until the light, landing on the mother’s heart, becomes more particle than wave and comes to fruition in the womb.  (Note:  if you are a scientist or have any training in the sciences, pay no attention to that woman behind the curtain. Pay no attention!)

 

“You who belong to all have become mine” sounds like an idea based on the First Law of Thermodynamics, that is, matter cannot be created or destroyed.  We are all made up of the same matter, matter that has existed in various forms since the beginning of time.  Regardless of religious beliefs, the First Law of Thermodynamics connects us to each other and to the earth.

 

"You were in the dolls of my childhood games": my oldest nurses her babydoll DeDe

Pseudo-science aside, it’s hard to believe this poem was written by a man.  “The Beginning” is tender, full of what is traditionally thought of as “feminine” sentiment.  A little girl plays with dolls and dreams of her future children.  The poet celebrates maternal love, not as a rigid way of defining gender roles, but as the primary creative force in the universe.  The child is loved by the mother of all mothers, the “deathless Spirit.”  This deity is clearly female.  She breastfeeds her babies, just as the God of the Old Testament in one passage is characterized as nursing her people.

 

Deep, soulful parental love imbues a child with a sense of her specialness.  Of course parents can go overboard with telling a child how special he is.  We’ve all witnessed failures of the self-esteem movement.  But when the specialness comes not from how well the child climbs the jungle gym but from a tremendous, a priori love from parents human and spiritual, security takes root.  And from security, responsibility.  A passage by Jewish theologian Martin Buber has always stuck with me, probably because it echoes what the nuns used to tell us:

 

“Every person born into this world represents something new, something that never existed before, something original and unique.  It is the duty of every person . . . to know . . . that there has never been anyone like him in the world, for if there had been someone like him, there would have been no need for him to be in the world.”

 

How wonderful if every child could have such knowledge.  For that reason I hid this poem in a bag of laundry I washed for South Oakland Shelter.  S.O.S. is a local Detroit organization that houses and feeds the homeless in shelters that rotate weekly from church to church and synagogue to synagogue.  Volunteers serve breakfast and dinner, and provide beds, bag lunches, showers, and transportation. It’s a beautiful program because the homeless come right to the tidy doors of the suburbs.  The ease of volunteering brings in many who might not choose to go to an inner city shelter.  It’s beautiful too because the homeless can feel part of a wider community.  I know I’m always going on and on about connection, but connection is what we all crave, especially those who can feel invisible at best and despised at worst.  Tagore’s poem speaks to each person to say that they are loved, they are a special part of the universe, they are a beautiful mystery.

 

Even for those who had an abusive mother or no mother at all, this poem offers a universal mother’s love.  Poet Rabindranath Tagore lost his mother in early childhood.  Perhaps this poem is a re-creation of the mother’s love he missed.

 

If you can put a western label on an eastern figure, Tagore (1861-1941) was surely a Renaissance man.  Born in India, he was a poet, novelist, composer, playwright, educator and painter.  And he was not just a dabbler.  He was the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature, he wrote the national anthems for India and Bangladesh, his plays are still performed today, he founded a university, and his work in music and writing has influenced sitar maestros and poets from Neruda to Paz.  He was a close friend of Ghandi and Nehru, his work was championed by Yeats and Pound, and he was a very handsome man to boot.

tagore-einstein.jpg

 

After finding (or inventing) scientific ideas in this poem, I was excited to learn that Tagore was interested in physics.  He met with Albert Einstein a few times in 1930.  If you’re curious about theories of causality, you can read a transcript of their conversation here.  I found the discussion a little dry until the two got around to music and improvisation.  Who knew Einstein was so interested in music?

 

More to the point, who knew about Tagore?  I didn’t anyway.  It’s humbling, isn’t it, to discover such a towering figure of global culture.  Makes me realize that the gaps in my education are much, much bigger than the ones I’m already aware of, like those in science and sitar music.

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