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Posts Tagged ‘aging’

I’m a lacksadaisical tweeter. A now-and-then and if-the-mood-strikes-me user of social media.

Which is why I only have 65 followers. That’s ten less people than I follow myself.

This post isn’t a plug for my twitter feed (I tried that here before and it didn’t help). It’s an announcement that I’m going to start posting some of my tweets on this blog. (Re-read that last sentence and realize that less than ten years ago it would have been complete gibberish.)

My tweets are different than my blog posts in that usually I use just a few lines from a longer poem instead of a complete poem. Also, I only feature pictures and I skip the commentary.

My latest one is  “Beauty School Dropout.” I left “Skin Deep” by Gail A. Chastain (the whole poem, because it was so short) at the Aveda Institute, a beauty school and salon.

poem is under sign and light fixture

poem is under sign and light fixture

 

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Of course, if you’d like to get all my tweets, follow me @poemelf.

 

 

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First poem is on second shelf next to blue and white box; second is on third shelf towards the back, sticking out next to smaller green boxes

First poem is on second shelf next to blue and white box; second is on third shelf towards the back, sticking out next to smaller green boxes

 

So We’ll Go No More a Roving

By Lord Byron (George Gordon)

 

So, we’ll go no more a roving

So late into the night,

Though the heart be still as loving,

And the moon be still as bright.

 

For the sword outwears its sheath,

And the soul wears out the breast,

And the heart must pause to breathe,

And love itself have rest.

 

Though the night was made for loving,

And the day returns too soon,

Yet we’ll go no more a roving

By the light of the moon.

 

Image 4

 

 

With Rue My Heart is Laden

By A.E. Housman

 

WITH rue my heart is laden

For golden friends I had,

For many a rose-lipt maiden

And many a lightfoot lad.

 

By brooks too broad for leaping

The lightfoot boys are laid;

The rose-lipt girls are sleeping

In fields where roses fade.

 

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More views:

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A few days after the Boston bombing, the line With rue my heart is laden climbed out of my mental attic and presented itself in the living room.  The phrase needed no introduction—I had memorized it years earlier—but I did question its judgment in showing up at that moment.  With rue my heart is laden is much too sentimental and wistful to address the maiming and killing of innocent people.  Then it occurred to me that the reason I associated this poem with the bombing was not the opening line but the image of lightfoot lads leaping across a brook.  Or rather, not leaping over the brook.

 

It was the loss of limbs, you see, that brought the poem to mind.

 

As soon as I made that connection, another line presented itself:  So no more we’ll go a roving. I should explain that for a long time (maybe even right up to the minute I copied the poem to use for this post) I thought Byron’s poem was “So No More We’ll Go a Rowing.”  I pictured the long-armed rowers sitting morose by the banks of a brook that the lightfoot lads couldn’t leap across. In my age-addled brain, I wondered if the two lines were, if not in the same poem, at least written by the same poet.

 

Easy to see why I conflated the two poems.  Even though they were written eighty years apart, the poems share a diction, structure and tone.  Both are brief, musical, have the same rhyme scheme and a similar meter, or close enough, anyway.

 

But more to the point, both poems express a longing for a golden past full of  beautiful young people and lighthearted spirits.  Boys rove and leap in a place no longer accessible.  Byron’s randy paradise is lost to age or exhaustion, and even though the words “rest” and “pause” allow for an eventual revival of roving, yet no more we’ll go sounds like Byron’s permanently traded in the Axe for Bengay.  Death has taken Housman’s pastoral dream, and so for both poets, carefree youthful days are irrevocable.

 

For that reason I couldn’t leave the poems in places frequented by teenagers, not during this season of proms and graduations.  It’s enough that kids have to see the smashed cars displayed on high school lawns, that they have to listen to the valedictorian get all carpe diem because my fellow classmates, it’s all gone in a flash, enough that they have to comfort parents snorfling about what happened to my baby girl.  They don’t need more reminders of lost youth and death that these two elegies would bring. Neither poem, I realized as I was thinking about where to poem-elf them, is a young person’s poem.

 

So I abandoned my first associations with the poems and decided to lighten the tone. I left the poems on a shelf at T.J. Maxx among the anti-aging products.  Because when it comes to the face, Faulkner’s wrong:  the past is definitely past, despite an 80 billion dollar skincare industry, despite the exclamations of old friends who insist you look as young as ever.  You don’t.  Your youthful skin is across brooks too broad for leaping and it’s decaying by the second in a field where roses fade. And while yoga, Kegel exercises or a salsa dancing class may give you back some of your youthful ju-ju, it’s just not the same ju-ju that sent you out on a Thursday night a-roving till the sun returned too soon.  I sound unsympathetic but I struggle with aging as much as anyone, and I’ll probably head back to T.J. Maxx to buy one of those wrinkle creams.

 

It all reminds me of a comment an acquaintance made years ago in a do-it-yourself yoga class in a friend’s basement.  We were inverted in downward-facing dog, and after a few minutes, this woman sighed and said, “I used to have the cutest heart-shaped ass.”  With a twist of my head I could see that she employed the past tense appropriately.

 

Lord Byron (1788-1824) and his longer poems made my life miserable in a college Romantic poetry class.  His life is bigger than I can cover in a paragraph, and anyway nearly everyone knows about his club foot, his sexual exploits, his death from fever in the war for Greek independence.  He wrote “So No More We’ll Go A Roving” when he was 29 in a letter written from Italy where he had gone to escape his scandals in England. Described by one of his former lovers as “mad, bad and dangerous to know,” I don’t think he ever stopped roving in his brief time on earth.

 

By contrast A.E. Housman (1859-1936) lived a quiet life.  He was born the oldest of seven children in rural England.  He went to Oxford but failed his final exams because he was distracted by his unrequited love for his classmate.  Still he earned  renown as a classics scholar, and after ten years spent in the patent office in London, he became a Latin professor at Cambridge.  He only published two volumes of poetry in his life.  The first, A Shropshire Lad, from which this poem is taken, was a series of 63 poems written after the death of his friend.  The book became popular during WWI.

 

Both poems found popularity with musicians.  Here’s Joan Baez’s version of Byron’s poem, and here’s one of the many versions of With Rue My Heart is Laden.

 

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poem is on tree in foreground

I may live on until

I long for this time

In which I am so unhappy,

And remember it fondly.

            —Fujiwara No Kiyosuke

                Translated by Kenneth Rexroth

I found this poem in a lovely little book of my father’s called 100 Poems from the Japanese.  I have no idea why he bought it and neither does my mother.  He was not, unless very very secretly, an aficionado of Japanese culture.  Most likely he made an impulsive purchase—the man loved owning books—but if the book is his Rosebud, I like to think the delicacy of traditional Japanese poetry was a refuge for a man living in a noisy household with eleven children and a dog.

 

The elegance of Japanese poetic forms like haiku and tanka comes from the balance of simplicity and depth of feeling.  Translator Kenneth Rexroth has done a fine job of maintaining such elegance in the English version.  This poem is tanka, which is a five-line poem with syllable lengths of 5-7-5-7-7.   Achieving those syllabic lengths in translation without altering meaning must be impossible, so Rexroth creates his own delicate structure with a simple four-line poem of mostly one-syllable words.  The effect is like listening to the rings of a crystal bell, with each word a single clear tone.

 

In his introduction to the collection, the translator says that Japanese poetry usually works around a single “pivot” word, a word with double meaning.  In this poem, the pivot word is “long.”  Long signifies the intensity of desire for the past, but also suggests the length of time one must wait to feel such desire.

 

The poem seems at first like a truism:  bad times aren’t so bad in retrospect. But there’s a lot more going on than mere platitude-spewing.  The poet writes I may live on not May I live on.   Why the conditional?   Because the line is not a wish or a blessing.  It’s an unsentimental reality check.  I may live till I look back fondly on unhappiness or I may not live that long.  Rather bleak.

 

And it gets only bleaker.  Why would I long for the problems I have now?  The chilling truth: worse problems lie ahead.  Aging is not for the faint-hearted.  On a cheerier note, and back to spewing platitudes, consider the alternative.  Being alive is good.  Even when it’s bad, life is good.  It’s just that in the middle of unhappiness we can’t see it.  Like a wise friend or good therapist, the poem provides perspective for the down-hearted.

 

I left the poem at a high school cross country meet.  I was thinking about the various people who might benefit from reading it.  It got a little silly.  To wit:  if someday these runners have no legs, they’d remember their tired muscles with longing.   If someday they’re hooked up to respirators, they’d sure miss feeling winded from running so fast.

My daughter, lucky to have legs

 

Even if they retain legs and lungs, the truth is that teenagers often lack perspective that troubles will pass.  At this regional meet there would be many long-faced runners who just missed qualifying for states or who ended their season with injuries and disappointments, never being able to run as fast as all the cowbell-ringing parents and screaming coaches on the sidelines pressured them to.  I was also thinking that the cowbell-ringing parents and screaming coaches needed perspective more than anyone.

 

But in the end, as so often happens, the one who needed perspective was myself.

 

The meet was cold and windy and I wasn’t dressed properly.  When I got back in the car, I looked in the rear view mirror and was dismayed to see a splotchy purple face.  Aurgh.  Thin skin that looks bruised in cold weather is one of the effects of aging that no one ever mentioned to me before.  Gone are the days of looking fresh in the winter with pink cheeks that polish to a cold marble finish.  Watering eyes, purple nose, dry lips—I looked like a crone.  But then I thought, in twenty years I’ll look back on pictures of myself right now and wish I could look so young again.  So there.

 

The poet, Fujiwara no Kiyosuke (1104-1177), was from a noble Japanese family, kind of the Kennedys of their day.  Besides being involved in politics, many of them were poets.

 by Beat Werke

 

I found out so little about the poet that I turned to the translator, Kenneth Rexroth (1905-1982).  What a life this guy had.  Rexroth dropped out of high school, travelled all over the country as a teen (he was an orphan at 14), spent time in jail for being part owner of a brothel, spoke on soapboxes in Chicago (he was a philosophical anarchist), lived in a monastery as a postulant, but also married four times.  During WWII, to which he was a conscientious objector, he helped Japanese-Americans escape internment camps.  His literary friends are a who’s-who of mid-century and Beat literary life.  Time magazine called him the “Father of the Beats,” a moniker to which he responded, “An entomologist is not a bug.”  He’s buried in Santa Monica on a cliff overlooking the ocean.  On his tombstone is a lovely poem he wrote in the Japanese style:

 

As the full moon rises

The swan sings in sleep

On the lake of the mind.

 

Look for Rexroth to be poem elfed soon.  This fellow intrigues me.

 

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WATER AND FIRE

by Rick Cannon

For a long time

with the heavy, dreamy struggle upward,

the natural cupping of the hands,

the lengthy earning of a stroke,

a man does not know fire.

It’s not until he sees how easily things melt

and slide away,

how his father went,

his mother fails,

the skin over his wife’s cheekbones

suddenly softens, is looser,

not until then does he walk on flaming grass

into the furnace of the trees

and wonder that he’s not consumed.

Finding a suitable location for this poem stumped me for a while.  If the poem were written for women, I’d have a much easier time of it.  There are, after all, many more public spaces devoted to women than to men—more clothing stores, more facilities devoted to our personal upkeep, more aisle space for our drugstore needs.  How to reach the male audience for whom “Water and Fire” is intended?  In the men’s department, a sports bar, a stack of Esquire magazines at the bookstore?  Most of those places draw young men, and most young men wouldn’t think this poem could ever apply to them.  To borrow the metaphors of the poem, young men are too busy swimming along in their dreamy waterworld to imagine the trial by fire ahead.

So my question was, where do men of late-middle age go when they’re not at work?  Or when they’re not at home, collapsing on couches and muting sorrow with a click of the remote?  A few appropriate spots came to mind: a  urologist’s office, a golf course, a barber shop or, if I had an accomplice, the men’s bathroom.

But in the end, I decided to leave this beautiful poem in a beautiful location, on a Tidal Basin cherry tree.  Conveniently this was also a good way to celebrate my first year of blogging.  One of my first posts last year was on these same cherry blossoms, just after they had bloomed.  (This year the trees were only a smidge past peak, still faintly pink, which I took as an auspicious sign for my second year of blogging.)

If I needed a third reason to tape a poem to a cherry tree (and the more reasons I can accumulate, the more taping poems to trees seems like a reasonable project), Rick Cannon is from Washington, D.C., and teaches at Gonzaga High School just a few miles from where I left his poem.

Onto the poem itself.  The Everyman of “Water and Fire” moves through the two titular environments.  In water he’s protected from fire and doesn’t even know fire exists.  All his energy is focused on moving forward.  And then Everyman’s perspective shifts.  Whatever his efforts have earned him counts for nothing once life starts taking away what could never be earned in the first place:  his parents, his wife’s beauty and all those things unmentioned but somehow present in the poem—health, carefree children, marital harmony, bodies and homes untouched by bad accidents.  Life will be grueling at some point, there’s no escaping it.  But to walk through fire and not be burned to ash is to be triumphant and sorrowful both at once.

I’m reminded of the brutal coming-of-age rituals I read about in Miss Parr’s Social Studies class, rituals in which boys become men by leaping from great heights with vines tied to their ankles.  But in this poem, it is the older man who must endure trials.  And what does he become?  A man burned and scarred but stronger than the young fellow in the water.

I’m fascinated by glimpses like this of the male experience—and I must admit men are stranger to me sometimes than birds and not at all as simple as my husband claims them to be.  But it’s as a woman that I was initially drawn to this poem.  Specifically, the lines

the skin over his wife’s cheekbones

suddenly softens, is looser.

Ouch.  Thank goodness Cannon doesn’t mention vaginal atrophy, graying pubic hair, thinning eyebrows, the occasional whisker and other disheartening signs of physical decline in the female body.

(Which reminds me of a line from Woody Allen’s Don’t Drink the Water, a play set in the U.S. Embassy in the Soviet Union.  Suspected of espionage, the bumbling Walter Hollander responds to his wife’s bragging about being the former Miss Wisconsin of 1938 with this lovely zinger about her legs:  “One look at those varicose veins and they’ll think I’m smuggling road maps.”)

Interesting that the man in the poem doesn’t notice his own decay, only that of the people around him.  God love all these men who can look in the mirror with such blindness and bliss!  Most women I know (including myself) obsess over aging faces.  We cling to what’s left of our beauty like lovers at a train station.  But not most men.  Either they’ve bought into the idea that they get better looking with age, or seconds after noticing their paunch, they pat it and put it out of their minds.

Of course the arc of life described in the poem is universal, and just as easily applied to women; and there’s no reason, I can hear my husband say, to fashion the poem into a dart to throw at men.  But it’s my blog and what’s done is done.

Rick Cannon graduated from Georgetown University and Iowa Writers Workshop.  In addition to teaching at Gonzaga for over 30 years, he’s an adjunct professor at Trinity University and has published three chapbooks.  He and his wife, poet Lori Shpunt, have five children.  You can read more of his wonderful poems here.

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