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Posts Tagged ‘Mary Poppins’

poem is on twiggy branch

poem is on twiggy branch

 

This Morning

by Javier Galvez

 

This morning

The sun broke

my window

and came in laughing

 

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Along the same path:

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Poem is in center-right of photo. Poem Elf is in black.

 

Gift

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.

 

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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.

 

ImageThe 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?

 

Czeslaw Milosz by Faber BooksI 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.

 

 

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poem is on tree trunk

Spring and Fall

to a young child

by Gerald Manley Hopkins

MÁRGARÉT, áre you gríeving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leáves, líke the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Áh! ás the heart grows older 5
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you wíll weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name: 10
Sórrow’s spríngs áre the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What heart heard of, ghost guessed:
It ís the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

Presenting this poem, I feel as though I’m introducing an old friend to newer ones.  The old friend is an oddball, dressed in clothes from another era, caught up in pursuits even I don’t understand, a Suzanne-takes-you-down-to her-place-by-the river sort of person, but still precious to me, burrowed deep and claiming her plot in my heart’s territory.  I feel anxious that the new friends, polished, sensible people, won’t understand or like the old one.

Which is all to say, this poem and I go way back.

Maybe I was 7 or 8 years old when one of my older sisters studied “Spring and Fall” in high school.  Because I shared a name with the child in the poem and because my sister has always been sweet and thoughtful, she gave the poem to me one Christmas. Literally.  She printed it on parchment, burned the edges, and decoupaged it on a piece of wood. (Decoupage! Big in the 70’s.) She used to recite the poem to me in a voice you might use to tell stories of goblins and ghosts, a voice urgent and eerie.  I can still hear her, building the drama, picking up the pace with each successive alliteration and bouncy rhyme, and then slowing down to that killer last line: “It is . . . MARGARET. . . that you grieve for.”

Long before I understood them, I had memorized the first two lines.  Hearing my name in a poem!  I was famous!  Any attention in a family of eleven is like cupcakes for dessert (unexpected and eagerly devoured), and so the poem became part of my identity.  I associated myself with the young child of the poem, the one with “fresh thoughts,” the one who inspired such musings in an old man. (Actually there’s no reason to assume the man is old, just older, but that’s how I’ve always seen it.)

If my name wasn’t in it, surely I wouldn’t have liked it so much.  “Spring and Fall” is not an easy poem to understand. Although the speaker addresses a child, the convoluted syntax and invented words are not, in the parlance of 2010, child-friendly. Unless children were loads more intelligent in Victorian days than they are now, I suspect little Margaret’s understanding of this poem rested mainly in the joy-fest of words, the delightful sing-song way it sounds.  (This poem is just begging to be recited.  Go ahead, it’s fun.)

Just as the language is a little advanced for the poem’s stated audience, so is the message. The old man, observing the child Margaret crying, explains that she cries now and will continue to cry when she’s older, for the same reason:  because fall signifies the coming of death. She mourns the end of her own life even as she begins it.

What a message to give a child, we might think. Better enjoy jumping in the leaves while you can, kid, because you’re going to DIE. Our culture shields children from death. The old family cat is just “sleeping”; grandma dies in the hospital where children aren’t allowed and then the casket is closed at the viewing so as not to upset anyone; and there are even those parents, Bruno Bettleheim be damned, who find fairy tales too morbid and disturbing for a young audience. (It will be no surprise that in my career as a mother I’ve erred on the side of hard truths too soon.)

The old man in the poem speaks truthfully to little Margaret, on the assumption that children know much more than they can articulate.

I’m reminded of another adult who speaks truthfully and unsentimentally to children: Mary Poppins, the P.L. Travers character, not the spoonful-of-sugar one. To modern readers, Poppins may seem brutal and unkind, but I loved her and read the Travers series over and over, even into my teen years. In a Paris Review interview, Travers explains Poppins’ nursery room demeanor:

She doesn’t hold back anything from them [the children]. When they beg her not to depart, she reminds them that nothing lasts forever. She’s as truthful as the nursery rhymes. Remember that all the King’s horses and all the King’s men couldn’t put Humpty-Dumpty together again. There’s such a tremendous truth in that. It goes into children in some part of them that they don’t know, and indeed perhaps we don’t know. But eventually they realize—and that’s the great truth.

I do think children, in their intimate relationship with nature—the hours spent with lightening bugs and dandelions, bees and slugs, grassy hills and falling leaves—understand something of mortality well before we anxiously read them Where’s Grandpa. Every beautiful thing children experience in nature dies or changes. Spring to fall, life bursts forth then dries up, crumples underfoot, blows away.

And so with Hopkins’ poem.  Spring and fall, joy and death.  Joy in the created world, in wanwood leafmeal and goldengrove, and joy in the act of creating poetry.  But then there’s the weeping, the ghosts, the sorrow, blight and death.

Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889), brilliant Victorian scholar and poet, seems to have been an unusually intense man with a large capacity for joy (expressed in his religious faith and in poems) and just as large capacity for sorrow.  He suffered from depression his whole life.  Converting to Catholicism as a young man and becoming a Jesuit priest isolated him from his disapproving Anglican family and convinced him, for a time, that writing poetry was self-indulgent.  As a new priest, he burned his earlier poems, but returned to writing seven year later.  He was published little during his lifetime and found an audience only after death. In spite of his depression and the loneliness he felt living abroad in Dublin (he taught James Joyce), he insisted as he died of typhoid fever, “I am so happy, I have been so happy.”

Listen here for Natalie Merchant putting these very musical words to music.

Jane in the wanwood leafmeal




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