by Javier Galvez
The sun broke
and came in laughing
Along the same path:
by Czeslaw Milosz
A day so happy.
Fog lifted early, I worked in the garden.
Hummingbirds were stopping over honeysuckle flowers.
There was no thing on earth I wanted to possess.
I knew no one worth my envying him.
Whatever evil I had suffered, I forgot.
To think that once I was the same man did not embarrass me.
In my body I felt no pain.
When straightening up, I saw the blue sea and sails.
I just returned from beautiful New Jersey (yes, beautiful: it’s much more a garden state than an armpit) visiting my sister Wizzie. All weekend I was charmed watching her children play outside. A slight chill kept me indoors, observing them through the glass, but spring sunshine made the front yard irresistible to them. My four-year old niece Emily has a presence somewhere between a fairy and an imp, both creatures most comfortable in open air. I could have watched her play for days on end. She’d ride her scooter back and forth on the driveway, singing, laughing, sometimes frowning. Then she’d hop off to examine the dirt or to sit talking to herself. At one point she knelt on the front stoop, hands folded, eyes closed, praying to the “Mother of God,” as she later admitted, for favors unknown.
Watching her made me think about how little time I spend outdoors and how disengaged I can be when I am. Sometimes when I’m outside it’s as if I’m checking off a list: soak up Vitamin D, check; feel gratitude for cumulus clouds, check; raise heart rate hiking up hill, check; detox lungs with cold winter air, check; and so on. It’s a far more detached experience of nature than I had as a little girl, playing with bugs and shouting in the wind.
That’s why I’m so drawn to “This Morning” and “Gift.” Both poems describe a communion with the natural world I miss.
The first poem, even though the setting is indoors, captures that childlike delight in the aliveness of everything out of doors. One of my favorite chapters in the wonderful P.L. Travers’ Mary Poppins series covers a similar theme. Seven-month old twins John and Barbara Banks, the younger siblings of Jane and Michael, lie in their cribs talking to a starling, the wind, the sun, and of course, to Mary Poppins. The conversation is not a back-and-forth of baby babble and bird warbling, but a fully grammatical and meaningful communication.
“How soft, how sweet you are! I love you,” said Barbara, holding out her hands to its shining warmth.
“Good girl,” said the sunlight approvingly, and moved up over her cheeks and into her hair with a light caressing movement. “Do you like the feel of me?” it said, as though it loved being praised.
“Dee-licious!” said Barbara, with a happy sigh.
Later, the twins are devastated to hear that in just a few months, when they turn one, these conversations will end. Barbara asks Mary Poppins if she won’t be able to hear the wind anymore once her teeth come in. Mary Poppins answers with what could be a battle cry for poets everywhere:
“You’ll hear all right,” said Mary Poppins, “but you won’t understand.’
The idea that some joyful knowledge was forgotten in growing up was an entrancing idea for a girl like me who didn’t want to give up fairy tales, who looked at adolescence as loss and adulthood as the end of fun.
The poet’s relationship with nature in the second poem, “Gift,” is less one of giddy happiness than equanimity. The poet works in his garden by the sea with great contentment. Maybe it’s my age, but I’m beginning to value contentment over happiness. It’s is the more reliable sister, the one who stays after the party to help with the dishes when happiness has flown out the door for the next gig.
Milosz’s contentment has a Buddhist flavor. He’s content because he’s detached from those things that cause suffering: in order, greed, envy, bitterness, and regret. With the lifting of the fog, his vision is clear. He’s focused on the present, not on the past or the future. It’s a cliché these days to say every day’s a gift but it probably wasn’t in 1971 when Milosz wrote the poem, and somehow even today he makes that idea as fresh as the New Jersey spring I wish would come to Michigan.
I left the poems on a nature trail a block from my sister’s house. After sticking the poems on tree branches, I sat down to tea and scones with three of my sisters and my mother while my brother-in-law prepared bacon and eggs in the kitchen. I knew how lucky I was. Like Milosz, I had no desire to be anywhere else or be anybody else. Our time together was brief and all the more valuable for that. A day so happy.
I found “This Morning” in an old college anthology of my sister’s, but I can’t find out much about poet Javier Galvez. I can only tell you he was born in 1947 and is probably a Mexican poet and wrote a book called Encanto Chicano. Anyone know anything more?
I wrote about Czeslaw Milosz in an earlier post. If you don’t mind, I’ll just copy the biographical sketch I wrote previously:
Although Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004) was born in Lithuania, he considered himself a Polish writer, Polish being the language his family spoke for centuries. He grew up under Csarist rule, and later lived under Nazi occupation, during which time he worked for the resistance, and finally survived Stalinist rule before becoming an American citizen. Fellow Nobel prize-winning poet Seamus Heaney described Milosz as “among those members of humankind who have had the ambiguous privilege of knowing and standing more reality than the rest of us.”
Milosz is considered one of the great minds and poets of the 20th century. Fluent in five languages, he translated the Old Testament, Shakespeare and Whitman into Polish, taught Slavic languages at Berkley, and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1980. His face has been put on a Polish postage stamp. He’s honored in a Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem and has a poem inscribed on a memorial to shipyard workers killed by Communists in Gdansk.
Because the poem has Buddhist overtones to me, I was interested (as I always am) in the poet’s spiritual side. He was Catholic, but did not want to be considered a Catholic poet. For those interested in his Catholicism, you can read his discussion of belief here. The essay is from 1982, long before the abuse scandals, so when he writes of the “remarkable successes of American Catholicism,” he’s not being sarcastic.
Very interesting, Poem Elf! Love your thoughts in “contentment” versus “happiness”. Great!
Thank you, poem elf, for the photos and poems and reflections! This was a great day for them for me….
A few years ago I read a wonderful book called Cultural Amnesia by Clive James. James discusses well-known figures but even more notably the many virtually unknown poets, philosophers, artists, and writers who perished in Poland and other countries during the Nazi years, in many cases their work extinguishing along with them. He writes of Milosz, whom I did know of, but also of great talents and minds we’ve–probably–never seen in print before. I was so moved by this book and read bits of it every April, which in some ways rises from the melted snows of winter as a somewhat cruel month.
I recall James’ recounting the suicide of a writer who could tell what was in store for Jews and others when the anschluss began in 1939. I find it impossible to forget a detail he shares, that this fearful, aware man was so unselfish that even as he plummeted from a window to his death as he approached the sidewalk he called out to passersby, to warn them so as not to be injured.
How does empathy rise to this level? How was it lost by so many?
Thanks, Trish, for your comments. I was just listening to a radio program today about developing empathy, and the point was that empathy (at times he interchanged “morality” with “empathy”), empathy begins with attention, with focus. He told a beautiful story about seeing a shirtless, nearly lifeless homeless man on the subway steps. Everyone ignored him and stepped over his body. He (and I don’t know who the speaker was, just caught part of the interview) stopped over the homeless man….and just by him stopping and paying attention, within seconds six other people stopped, concerned. Within 3 minutes, someone had got him food, someone found clothes, someone called the police to help. But it started with one person paying attention. French philosopher Simone Weil writes about attention in a similar vein.
Thanks also for the book recommendation. I LOVE Clive James…I think he’s about the most brilliant and hilarious person living. Unfortunately, I hear he’s really sick right now.
Oh wow, I didn’t know about Clive James.
After I read his book I had to write him to commend him on his achievement.
That’s such an interesting idea, that empathy begins with attention…
I’ve always felt that insanity would be the permanent inability to focus…
The story of the homeless man and how one stopping led to the rest reminds me of how water will hover at the edge of the rim of a glass and will just sit there until the surface tension is broken by something like the touch of a finger. All begins then but it needs that merest touch. Or the potato sack that just asks that the right thread be plucked to open it.
Hello Poem Elf,I love this little poem by Galvez but I’m confused by the capital letters at the beginning of the second line. Any chance it’s a typo? I want to share this with a few students but I don’t want to perpetuate an error in the text and this doesn’t seem right to me.
I’m sure I copied it as I saw it in the textbook I found it in, and I vaguely remember thinking that the capitalization was odd and distracting. I just found a Facebook page for Galvez, so I’ve messaged him with the question. Will get back to you when I hear.
And a good reminder to me to get going on your poems!
I am Javier Galvez the capital letter was done because the sun in my Mexica culture represented everything .When I would read my Poems in public I would read this poem and it is so short but has all the elements of life and in a way I felt the sun would start my day happy and in a way the sun speaking to me saying “I ‘m here go have a great day”
Yesterday I was walking with my wife and our our dog that has 3 legs and saw this paper on my path I did not like the idea of trash on the street and when I saw it is interesting it was JOHN AND BARBAR’S STORY in a way it was God telling me something but I had no idea what it was and this morning i read your question about the capital letter.
With all the fake news around us, I want to be careful with this letter. If this is indeed Javier Galvez, welcome and thank you so much for responding! I’m curious about the capitalization of “The” vs. a capitalization of “sun.” That was why some readers wondered if there had been a typo in the textbook.
Also wondering if you were speaking metaphorically when you said you found a piece of paper with the John and Barbara story. And did you find my question on Facebook? (I deleted my account after the election, so I can’t check if you responded there.)
And if this is not Javier Galvez but someone pretending to be Javier Galvez, I have a question as well. Why?
Whichever way, thanks for writing. It sent me back to this little poem, which I love and which I need right now in gloomy gray Michigan.
Thank you for reading my poem great honor.