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Posts Tagged ‘november’


downtown Detroit

 

Beginning of November

by Franz Wright

 

The light is winter light.

You’ve already felt it

before you can open your eyes,

and now it’s too late

to prepare yourself

for this gray originless

sorrow that’s filling the room. It’s not winter. The light is

winter light,

and you’re alone.

At last you get up:

and suddenly notice you’re holding

your body without the heart

to curse its lonely life, it’s suffering

from cold and from the winter

light that fills the room

like fear. And all at once you hug it tight,

the way you might hug

somebody you hate,

if he came to you in tears.

 

 

Why have I collected so many of these bleak Franz Wright poems?

 

Probably for the same reason I like the music of Leonard Cohen. And the face of German actress Nina Hoss. And subtitled movies with barren landscapes, colorless cityscapes and violin music in the background. And the very November light of this poem,

 

this gray originless

sorrow that’s filling the room.

 

Because sometimes the world has too much raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens and you just need to take out your own personal collection of sorrowful things and examine them, one by one. Wright is the master of that domain.

 

I’m imagining a Franz Wright-Julie Andrews sing-off. She’s in her high-necked white nightgown. Her face beams as she hugs a pillow to her chest. He’s in old boxers. She warbles on about cream-colored ponies and crisp apple strudels while under her silver tones his voice rumbles out an opposing truth—

 

you’re holding

your body without the heart

to curse its lonely life

 

Enjoy November, everyone.

 

Here’s a biography of Wright I’ve posted several times previously.

Franz Wright’s face is his biography. This is what a hard life looks like. But it’s a heroic face too, considering the suffering he lived with: beatings by his father, worse beatings by his stepfather, parental abandonment, manic-depression, alcoholism, and drug abuse. Like writer Mary Karr, his onetime colleague and friend, he overcame addiction and converted to Catholicism, finding some measure of stability in the last sixteen years of his life.

 

Franz Wright (1953-2015) was born in Austria where his father, the famous poet James Wright, was studying on a Fulbright scholarship. The older Wright left the family when Franz was eight, and only stayed in sporadic contact with the family. When Franz was fifteen he sent his father a poem, and his father wrote back, “Well I’ll be damned. You’re a poet. Welcome to hell.”

 

The younger Wright graduated from Oberlin College in 1977. In 1984 he was winning awards and teaching at Emerson College when he was fired for “drinking related activities.” He sunk into a years-long depression, wasn’t able to write, and attempted suicide.

 

In 1999 he married a former student, Elizabeth Oehklers. He converted to Catholicism, got sober and was able to write again.

 

He died earlier this year of lung cancer at age 62.

 

 

 

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poem is on narrow tree just above the white arrow

Praying

by Mary Oliver

It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

The first task I set myself when trying to penetrate this poem (oh dear—a disturbing image–sounds like I keep a sex toy by my bookshelf) was to Google “blue iris.”  Did it have a symbolic meaning or cultural significance that I was unaware of? No, but I discovered it sure is a popular name for spas, paint colors and cafes.  The significance of the blue iris in this poem is simply that it’s a spectacular, Grand-Canyon-kind of flower, and looking at it could lead to an awe-filled experience of the Sublime such as the Romantic poets were fond of.

 

That kind of lofty emotion, Oliver says, does not have to be the starting point of prayer.   It’s interesting that her own starting point is a negative statement.  Sometimes it’s easier to define a complex idea by stating what it’s not: love is not jealous, or love is not all, as Edna St. Vincent Millay would say (who is relevant to this discussion, as you’ll see shortly).

 

In the second stanza Oliver employs two more negatives:  “don’t try” and “this isn’t.”  A pattern emerges underneath the seeming loose construction of the poem.  The three negative statements fall in the first two stanzas of the poem; the third holds only positive statements. The negative sets a tone of unease, of struggle. To enter in a prayerful state, the stillness and divine presence described in the third stanza, requires letting go, whittling away extraneous experience such as feelings of inadequacy or competition.  Oliver whittles away in a very mathematical fashion:  the first stanza has five lines, the second three, and the third, two.  A tidy little subtraction problem for the work of beginning a prayer.

 

The invisible structure of the poem is evident too in the last words of each of the first two stanzas. (I know from reading Oliver’s very helpful book on poetry that last words of lines have special import.) The word “patch” bridges the first two stanzas and recalls, even as it’s used as a verb, the weeds she studies.  And the word “doorway” is just that—a doorway into the gratitude of the third stanza, into prayer itself.

 

Gratitude is at the root of all major religions, and so it’s no wonder this poem can be found on blogs by Christians, Buddhists, Muslims and Jews.  And Unitarians, of course.  The importance of gratitude may be today’s version of Kumbaya or have-a-nice-day-namaste, easy to dismiss as overused hokum, but, really, do you know any happy people who don’t radiate a spirit of gratitude, of wonderment?   Oliver seems to be a happy lady herself as is clear in her poem, “When Death Comes”:

 

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

 

Mary Oliver was born in Ohio in 1935.  As a teenager she made a pilgrimage to the upstate New York home of Edna St. Vincent Millay.  She ended up living on Millay’s estate with Millay’s sister on and off for years. Millay was an early influence on Oliver (and you can read Oliver’s tribute to her predecessor here).  When I began writing this post, I would never have connected the two poets:  one is so formal, the other unpretentious and conversational.  (Listen here to Oliver’s plain-speaking recitation of a poem and compare it to Millay’s affected delivery.)  But now I see connections abound:  both are passionate lovers of nature, winners of Pulitzer Prizes, and are more popular with the public than with literary critics.

 

At the Millay house Oliver met photographer Molly Malone Cook, who was to become her partner of 40 years. (Six degrees of separation moment:  Cook was a close friend of filmmaker John Waters, who is the cousin of a good friend of my husband’s in high school, a boy I once kissed and who later told my husband he shouldn’t date me because I was too quiet.  Down, bitter girl, down.)

 

On a hike with some friends, feeling very grateful indeed for November sunshine and temps in the 60s, I taped the poem to a tree for the next hiker to find. I felt a little like a mother hiding holy cards in her grown children’s luggage.

 

 

 

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Just wanted to share a collage my daughter made using a picture she had taken for her photography class and a paraphrase of a favorite passage of mine.  The paraphrase is taken from Life of the Beloved, by Henri J. M. Nouwen, a Catholic priest who died in 1996.  Nouwen wrote the book following a request from a secular friend, journalist Fred Bratman, to explain the spiritual life to a non-spiritual audience.

The particular passage that I love begins with the idea that every situation, good or bad, leaves us with a choice to be bitter or grateful.

“When an event turns out well, it could always have turned out better; when a problem is solved, there often emerges another in its place; when a relationship is restored, there is always the question: ‘For how long?’;  when a wound is healed, there still can be some leftover pain. . . Where there is a reason for gratitude, there can always be found a reason for bitterness.  It is here that we are faced with the freedom to make a decision.  We can decide to be grateful or to be bitter.

[Nouwen describes the mentally handicapped residents he lives and works with as people who continually choose to be grateful and holds them up as models to follow.]

. . . When we keep claiming the light, we will find ourselves becoming more and more radiant. What fascinates me so much is that every time we decide to be grateful it will be easier to see new things to be grateful for.  Gratitude begets gratitude, just as love begets love.”

November ushers in a season of sunless days in my state.  I’ll keep this collage on hand for when the dreariness gets the upper hand.

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