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Posts Tagged ‘Maryland’

poem is leaning against bread case on top of counter

 

To Luck

by W.S. Merwin

In the cards and at the bend in the road
we never saw you
in the womb and in the crossfire
in the numbers
whatever you had your hand in
which was everything
we were told never to put
our faith in you
to bow to you humbly after all
because in the end there was nothing
else we could do
but not to believe in you

still we might coax you with pebbles
kept warm in the hand
or coins or the relics
of vanished animals
observances rituals
not binding upon you
who make no promises
we might do such things only
not to neglect you
and risk your disfavor
oh you who are never the same
who are secret as the day when it comes
you whom we explain
as often as we can
without understanding

 

 

Maryland is one of the best places to get a really good steak-and-cheese (that’s a sub sandwich, for those who haven’t had the pleasure), so when I was back in my old digs last week I decided to chow down at a local deli. Turns out the deli didn’t offer the best version of that delicacy, which should be greasy and mayonnaise-y and held together in a crusty roll, but I couldn’t be disappointed because it was good enough, and just eating it brought back a nice memory of passing a foot-long steak-and-cheese around the table with my sisters, each having a bite till hardly anything was left for my husband who bought the sub in the first place.

 

Just so, reading this ode to luck—-more of a hymn actually—brings to mind the luck that has shaped my life, the good luck which is so often just the absence of bad luck.

 

The poem feels ancient and dark, the second half in particular. It frightens me a little. Bad luck lurks around the poem’s edges, and I wonder if the person who found “To Luck” pocketed it as a talisman or tossed it over her shoulder like salt.

in his younger days–very handsome!

W.S. Merwin was born in New York City in 1927. His father was a Presbyterian minister. He graduated from Princeton, and after a year of graduate study in Romance languages, traveled through Europe working as a translator and tutor to children from wealthy families. In 1976 he moved to Hawaii to study Zen Buddhism, eventually settling on an old pineapple plantation in Maui, where he still lives today with his third wife.

 

Merwin’s circle has included many luminaries of the poetry world—he was classmates with Galwell Kinell, pupil to John Berryman, and friend of James Wright, Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes.

 

 

He was an anti-war activist during the Vietnam War and donated the prize money from the Pulitzer he won to a draft resistance movement. He continues to work as an activist, these days focusing on saving the rainforests of Hawaii.

 

He’s won too many awards and honors to list. I’ll just mention he’s a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the 2010 Poet Laureate of the United States, and leave it at that.

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One of many ways to enjoy the charms of Chestertown

 

I love the Midwest, but sometimes living here I need a strong dose of quirky.  I spent last weekend in Chestertown, Maryland with my sisters, my mother and a handful of nieces, and I’m happy to report that quirk has been dispensed.

 

Chestertown is a small historic Eastern Shore town, population 5,000, situated on the Chester River a few miles from the beautiful Chesapeake Bay.  It features a two-street downtown with brick sidewalks and just enough shops to fill an afternoon.  My daughter thought she was on the set of Gilmore Girls.  There was a funky coffee shop, a clean well-lit bakery with a very cute baker named Dougie, a multitude of consignment shops (no pretense here, that’s consignment, not antique), and five bookstores.  Two are used, one new, one’s Christian and the other is the campus bookstore for nearby Washington College, established 1792.

 

At one of the bookstores, I fell in love with a series of hand-made books by a local husband-wife team.  Funny, quirky little books.  The couple lives in a barn and I was encouraged to walk over and meet them.  To my lasting regret, I ran out of time and didn’t. (Later this week I’ll post on their enterprise, Idiot Books.)

 

In another bookstore I heard a customer ask the bookseller, “Do you have anything for ‘Mommy lied and Daddy’s really in jail?’”

 

I celebrated my birthday with my sisters for the first time in twenty years.  They surprised me with a wonderful cake:

 

 

I got a plastic duck with a tape measure hidden in its backside and this, a gift that brought tears to my eyes:

 

My sister told me the bookseller knew all about Kenneth Rexroth.  This town impresses. Marian the Librarian would surely be idle if she was charged with improving the cultural level of Chestertown.

 

But the best present was spending time with my female relatives.  We did what we always do:  we plan runs and eventually go running, we persuade each other to take our cast-offs in a grand clothing exchange, we laugh at my mother’s jokes and tricks, we put candy corn in our mouths like teeth and talk like hillbillies, we drink, we dance, but mostly we talk talk talk on matters trivial (how often we dye our hair if at all) and profound (what are our dreams for the rest of our lives?)

 

Indeed I have an embarrassment of riches in the sister department, so it was most appropriate that my sister-in-law, who always designs the commemorative t-shirt, chose a treasure chest as her theme.

 

The quote is from the end of a poem by Victorian poet Christina Rossetti called “Goblin Market.”  It’s crazy stuff.  One of two sisters eats the forbidden fruit of goblin men.   After the first fruit-eating frenzy, she can’t get any more and begins to waste away.  The other sister begs the goblin men for more fruit.  They refuse and beat her and squash fruit in her face.  So she runs home and tells her sister to lick the pulp from her cheek and lips.  (Face-licking was unnecessary on our weekend because there was plenty of cake and apples for all.)  Years later the recovered sister tells her children:

For there is no friend like a sister

In calm or stormy weather;

To cheer one on the tedious way,

To fetch one if one goes astray,

To lift one if one totters down,

To strengthen whilst one stands.

 

Amen, sister, amen.

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