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poem is on the green planter

 

Poem

by Thomas McGrath

 

How could I have come so far?

(And always on such dark trails?)

I must have traveled by the light

Shining from the faces of all those I have loved.

 

 

If I were skilled in the art of micrographia, I would copy this poem on vellum in the tiniest of scripts, with flourishes visible only by magnifying glass, and put it in a silver locket I would wear around my neck.  There’s an elegance and a goodness in “Poem” that I want to keep close and display as if they belonged to me.  The elegance comes from the poem’s brevity—a lifetime in four lines—and its symmetry.  The first two lines, seven syllables each, pose a question. The second question modifies the first, just as the answering phrase in the third line is modified by the phrase that follows.

 

The way McGrath chooses to measure his life speaks to his goodness. The poem begins mid-thought, as if McGrath is standing atop a hill he’s climbed, catching his breath and surveying his steps.  Musing over the dark trails he’s passed through, he could have asked any number of questions:  Why did I have to go through all that crap? or Why didn’t I get farther, do better? or How much farther do I have to go? Instead he marvels at his progress:

 

How could I have come so far?

 

His answer is rooted in humility.  As with the question, the nature of his answer is best seen by what it is not.  He could credit his own grit and determination.  Or he could credit the people who have cared for him, who have loved him.  Nothing wrong with either approach.  The latter can be a wonderful exercise in gratitude. But it can also turn into self-congratulation.  In dark moments of runaway hypochondria, from which I suffer occasionally, I imagine my funeral.  I think how sad everyone who loves me will be.  Mewling and licking my endearing qualities, I construct eulogies, tributes and photo boards to prove how loveworthy I am.

 

What grabs me is that McGrath looks towards those he has loved.  Counting the people he has loved rather than the people who have loved him increases exponentially the length of the human luminaria he describes:

 

I must have traveled by the light

Shining from the faces of all those I have loved.

 

Not only does a good and kindly heart love many more than a sour or self-centered one; a good and kindly heart can love just about anyone.  The decision to love transforms the beloved, or to use the image in “Poem,” lights a wick that sets them aglow.

 

The deep, abiding love for friends and family provides the brightest light. But our luminaria can also include the glancing love we feel for strangers or for those who may not notice us at all:  the grandmother I saw the other day in the rain cooing “wishy wishy woo” to her granddaughter in the grocery cart; novelist Penelope Fitzgerald and essayist Anne Fadimann; the slow-stepping woman in my neighborhood who walks her old greyhounds twice a day; the possibly autistic deli owner who tries very hard to converse with customers; giggly Miss Clement, my high school English teacher who crossed her arms on top of a bosom that fell below her waist; the tall and unbathed brother and sister who danced so joyfully at Saturday night ceilis in Baltimore long ago.  And so on.

 

Tea Time by missmandyjaneI left this poem outside my friend’s kitchen, a kitchen where I’ve spent many enlightened (pardon the pun) hours enjoying her company.  For the past twenty years we’ve had tea together on Fridays, sometimes weekly, sometimes less than that, and for the five years she moved to Colorado, alas, hardly at all.   Friday tea is our time to catch-up, confess, get advice, examine issues, spout off opinions and laugh of course.  When I arrive she has set the table with placemats, teaspoons, Lipton tea bags, mugs, a china tea pot and sugar bowl.  She’s good at those old-fashioned niceties, taking time with preparation and serving that have nothing to do with formality and everything to do with grace.  I hope the poem reminds her how much I love her and cherish her light on my path.

 

Thomas McGrath (1916-1990) knew something of dark trails.  At times homeless, jobless, and earning less fame than our current poet laureate, Philip Levine, has said he deserves, McGrath nonetheless seemed to be a kindly man his whole life.  He was born in North Dakota to an Irish Catholic family of farmers.  The Dustbowl and the Depression led to foreclosure of their farm.  His experiences growing up poor and riding the rails in the 30’s radicalized his politics.  He worked as a labor organizer and was a member of the American Communist Party.  He was awarded a Rhodes Scholarship at Oxford he couldn’t accept until after he served in the army in World War II.  Refusing to testify in the McCarthy hearings, he was fired from the state college where he taught and blackballed from writing for the film industry.  Thereafter he made a living as a secondary school teacher, freelance writer, welder and woodcutter, and eventually found his way back to university teaching.  His masterpiece, Letter to an Imaginary Friend, is an epic-length political and autobiographical poem.  He wrote the script for To Fly, an exhilarating movie I remember seeing at the Air and Space Museum.

 

 

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Yesterday I listened to an anti-Valentine’s Day show on the radio.  Then I read an anti-anti-Valentine’s Day advice column.  What’s with all the hating on my second favorite holiday of the year?

 

Valentine’s Day is about love.  That’s all there is to it.  Yeah, love!  It doesn’t have to be romantic love or hot sexy love or I-don’t-have-anyone-to love.  If you love your parents or your siblings or your friends or your co-workers or your teachers or your dogs or even just the earth (and if not that, best find out what ails you), Valentine’s Day is worth celebrating.  And celebrating doesn’t mean waiting for the roses to be delivered.  Like any other concept connected to love, Valentine’s Day is about giving, not getting.

 

To celebrate, I went on a Valentine’s Day binge, Poem-Elf style.  I left poems all over town.  A little something for everyone.

 

At the food court in the mall, I left “What There Is” by Kenneth Patchen.

poem is on side of booth

 

I sent this one to my kids.  A message of love for everyone!

 

 

In the men’s underwear department of Macy’s I left Robert Creeley’s “Old Song.”

poem is in the middle of the top shelf

 

An Old Song with a new twist:  men enjoy being desired as much as women do.

 

 

Target seemed like a good spot for poem-elfing today.  I left “After Love” by Sara Teasdale in the make-up aisle.

poem is in front of the lipsticks

 

I figured that if you’ve reached the end of a relationship, you just may want some new make-up to cheer yourself up.

 

For very romantic souls, I left “Although I Conquer All the Earth” on a path through the woods.

poem is on tree on left-hand side of path

 

I hope the wind doesn’t blow it away before lovers canoodling in the woods find it.

 

For lovers who enjoy PDA, I left “So Let’s Live–Really Live ” in the city park.

poem is on park bench

 

The name of the statue behind the bench is Marshall Frederick’s “The Freedom of the Human Spirit.”  Yes, indeed!

 

I passed an independent living building for seniors and left Grace Paley’s “Hand-Me-Downs.”

poem is taped to the right of the door

 

Who else can write about old lovers with such tenderness and whimsy?

 

I left Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s “Recipe for Happiness” in the flower department of the grocery store.

poem is in the center bouquet of roses

I hope the poem elevates an average-looking valentine bearing an average gift into something magical.

 

Finally, I left Lorca’s “Variation”  for my own valentine on the window of his office.

 

We’ve been together since we were 17 and this poem reminds me of young love.  And old love too, goldarnit.

 

Enjoy Valentine’s Day, everyone!  Spread it around.

 

 

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when it was more important to dream than clean my room

 

When I was a teenager, and like other teens suffering from an awkwardness in inverse proportion to my romantic longings, I liked to sit by the fire during the holiday season and listen to sad music till tears rolled down my cheeks.  It was great.  Certain inchoate desires—to live a happening life, to be loved by a boy, to be Mary Tyler Moore, to just, just experience something I didn’t know what, something beautiful and swooning—such feelings found release there in the darkened rec room with the fire crackling and popping and the scratchy Richie Havens album on the phonograph.  For a really good cry, Haven’s decidedly uncheerful “I Can’t Take it Anymore” was gentle medicine.

 

I still need a sad song around the holidays.  Listening to music that draws out tears is as beneficial as lancing a cut.  For a short four-tear cry I listen to Lizz Wright’s “Dreaming Wide Awake,” a beautiful and lush song well-served by its title.

 

For a lighter kind of melancholy, I turn to Wilco’s “One Sunday Morning (Song for Jane Smiley’s Boyfriend).”  Actually, it’s not just a holiday song for me; I’ve been listening obsessively since Wilco released their latest album in September.

 

The song is about a man struggling with memories of a difficult father.  The man’s dead father was a condemning sort who condemned the son for not believing in a condemning God.  Songwriter Jeff Tweedy explains the spiritual issue at the center of the song:  “Now he’s [the father] going to know he was wrong and that there is an only loving God.”  It sounds heavy in summary, but bouyant and rollicking to listen to.

 

Wilco Jeff Tweedy Nels Cline by groovescapesTweedy is a real poet if you ask me.  Certain lines in this song, like so many Wilco songs, have earned a life of their own.  They walk around quietly in my head like old people, wise and world-weary.  Here’s one:

 

What I learned without knowing

How much more I owe than I can give

 

And another:

 

I fell in love with the burden

holding me down

 

You have to listen to the lyrics in context, so I encourage you to link here.  Be sure you have 12 minutes to spare.  And another 12 minutes after that because you may want to listen again and allow a mood of pleasant melancholy to wash over you.  It’s just the loveliest loveliest song.

 

My husband and I are going to a Wilco concert this weekend and we’ll hear it live.  Surely we’ll have yet another conversation about the meaning of the lyrics.

 

Here they are:

 

This is how I’ll tell it

Oh, but it’s long.

One Sunday Morning

Oh, one son is gone.

 

Against the weather dawning

Over the sea

My father said what I had become

No one should be.

 

Outside I look lived in

Like the bones in a shrine

How am I forgiven?

Oh, I’ll give it time.

 

This I learned without warning

Holding my brow

In time we thought I would kill him

Oh, but I didn’t know how.

 

I said it’s your God I don’t believe in

No, your Bible can’t be true

Knocked down by the long lie

He cried I fear what waits for you.

 

I can hear those bells

Spoken and gone.

I feel relief I feel well

Now he knows he was wrong.

 

Ring ’em cold for my father

Frozen underground

Jesus I wouldn’t bother

He belongs to me now.

 

Something sad keeps moving

So I wandered around.

I fell in love with the burden

Holding me down.

 

Bless my mind, I miss

Being told how to live.

What I learned without knowing

How much more I owe than I can give.

 

This is how I tell it

Oh, but it’s long.

One Sunday morning

One son is gone.

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