The Poets’ Birds: Cormorants

Double-crested cormorant  (Phalacrocorax auritus)

Given their propensity to perch atop pilings or promontories while drying their outstretched wings, cormorants too often are regarded as little more than featureless silhouettes.

In truth, both their appearance and their behaviors are complex and interesting. Fishermen may despise them for their ability to out-fish humans, and tourists often ridicule them for their apparent ungainliness, but at least one poet found himself inspired by the remarkable bird.

The birds don’t alter space.
They reveal it. The sky
never fills with any
leftover flying. They leave
nothing to trace. It is our own
astonishment that collects
in chill air. Be glad.
They enter their due
moment never begging,
and enter ours
without parting day. See
how three birds in a winter tree
make the tree barer.
Two fly away, and new rooms
open in December.
Give up what you guessed
about a whirring heart, the little
beaks and claws, their constant hunger.
We’re the nervous ones.
If even one of our violent number
could be gentle
long enough that one of them
found it safe inside
our finally untroubled and untroubling gaze,
who wouldn’t hear
what singing completes us?
                                  “Praise Them” ~ Li-Young Lee

 

Comments always are welcome.
Visit The Poetry Foundation for more information on poet Li-Young Lee.
For more images of this accomodating cormorant found at the Brazoria Wildlife Refuge, see my latest post on Lagniappe.
 

A New Year’s Raid on the Inarticulate

 

The sky lowers, and the horizon disappears. A turning wind attempts to blanket the moon with sea-born fog, shrouding the contours of its face. Impassive, harshly brilliant above the fog, it rises ever higher behind fast-scudding clouds, lighting the transition between old and new: between one year and the next.

As midnight approaches, a lingering few stand silent, shrouded in a fog of thought, tangled in life’s web, caught between the land of no-longer and the land of yet-to-be. Perhaps a passing, shadowed thought suggests itself even to revelers in the street:This is the way of life.

Armies rise. Nations fall. Children squall into existence even as their elders sigh away toward death. Beyond the farthest reaches of the galaxies, unnamed stars explode with pulsating light while on our own shy, spinning globe, rotting leaves and the stench of steaming mud evoke a season’s final turn.

Amid these cycles and rhythms of life, against a backdrop of continuous change, torrents of words flow on: a steady sluice of syllables seemingly uncontained. For those who read, and especially for those who write, this flow of language brings solace. Like the river it resembles, language connects and cleaves, cleanses and comforts: nourishing the creativity taking root along its course.

Still, for poets, novelists, and essayists — for every story-teller or myth-maker stepping into or hesitating around this outpouring of words — another truth clamors for recognition.

Words, too, partake of life, rising and falling as surely as any civilization. Syllables rearrange themselves; paragraphs take on life; sentences fade into obscurity. True to their own rhythms and seasons, turned this way by time and that way by circumstance, words sometimes slip away and are lost: out of sight, out of mind, out of imagination.

Standing between last year’s language and next year’s words, T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” whispers of an experience every writer knows:

Between the idea
And the reality
Between the motion
And the act
Falls the Shadow…
Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow…

Within the context of his poem, Eliot’s words carry particular meaning. But for writers of any sort, they perfectly communicate an imperfectly understood truth. Words are not solely ours to manipulate. We do not own words. We are not their masters. However faded and frayed they may be, no matter how lost to consciousness, no matter how twisted beyond recognition or firmly consigned to out-of-the-way corners of our mind, words demand respect, and words will have their way.

When the shadow of wordlessness comes upon us, when we sense our  language has grown old and tired as the visions of our spent imaginations, we can be tempted toward a  misunderstanding of words. Confronted by blank pages, we fuss and fiddle, attempting to revivify that which refuses to be reclaimed. When a loss of language comes, no formula or key, no magic phrase, no sturdy discipline or aligning stars will guarantee the continued liveliness of our words. Last year’s words belong to last year’s language, the poet says, and there the matter seems to end.

But of course it does not end, for next year’s words await another voice. Emerging words, nascent paragraphs, sentences and phrases filled with light lie waiting in the shadows of the coming year. Not yet written, still unclaimed, resonant as the tolling of the midnight bell and brilliant as a half-glimpsed moon, they are, in fact, our new year’s words.

Whether and how we will give them voice remains uncertain. Perhaps we will succeed. Perhaps not. But among those who have dared to ford the swiftly-flowing stream of language, some have sent back bulletins from a newly-discovered territory, granting us guidance for our path:

So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years —
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l’entre deux guerres —
Trying to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Because one has only learnt to get the better of words
For the thing one no longer has to say, or the way in which
One is no longer disposed to say it.
And so each venture
Is a new beginning, a raid on the inarticulate
With shabby equipment always deteriorating
In the general mess of imprecision of feeling,
Undisciplined squads of emotion. And what there is to conquer
By strength and submission, has already been discovered
Once or twice, or several times, by men whom one cannot hope
To emulate—but there is no competition.
There is only the fight to recover what has been lost
And found and lost again and again: and now, under conditions
That seem unpropitious. But perhaps neither gain nor loss.
For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.
                                                                     “East Coker” ~ T.S. Eliot

 

Innocents, Still

Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception, Cuenca, Ecuador

Lisa Brunetti, an artist and friend who blogs from her home in Ecuador, greeted her readers on Christmas day with a heartfelt Feliz Navidad and a reminder of a charming Ecuadorian custom:

At the  midnight hour on December 24th, many people in Ecuador pause during their late-night meal and raise a toast to Baby Jesus. They exchange greetings with everyone in the room; then they return to their seats and resume their meal.

Other Ecuadorians, on their way to Christmas Eve Mass, carry the Christ-child from their families’ nativity scenes to the church. The infants are placed on the altar until midnight. At the end of the service, they’re carried back home and returned to their mangers.

It’s a lovely tradition, reminiscent of some Americans’ practice of leaving the manger empty until Christmas Day. Once the baby Jesus has been tucked back into the heart of his family, we sigh over the loveliness of his mother, admire the steadfastness of his father, give a nod to his humble surroundings, and go our way. What comes next isn’t our concern.

The temptation to abandon the Christ-child to eternal infancy isn’t particularly surprising. Babies offer challenges, to be sure, but there’s very little more touching than the sight of a sleeping infant, warm and secure. More than a few parents and grandparents have been heard to murmur the ages-old wish: “If only this time would last, just a bit longer.”

Life doesn’t allow for such freeze-frames, of course. Gazing in delight at innocent babes in bassinets is only the beginning. Soon enough come colic and teething, followed closely by the terrible twos.  Eventually, orthodontists, tutors or coaches come knocking at the door. The driver’s license becomes unavoidable, as does that awkward young man with the skateboard and tattoo who appears to know the daughter everyone assumed was spending weekends in her bedroom, reading.

Sometimes life hands out worse than a tattooed skateboarder. Unhappy choices of friends may lead to a Saturday night call from jail, or a suspension from school. Now and then, illness diverts the flow of life, or accidental injury. Given the unpredictability of life, it’s impossible to know what’s just around the bend. Whatever it is, it may be heading straight for us, perfectly capable of  doing in our children, and us along with them.

In countries less fortunate than the United States, the challenges are different, but equally daunting. Preventable diseases like measles and malaria, environmental scourges like shistosomiasis, and simple malnutrition lead to much higher infant mortality rates. Violence, insurrection, civil war, and genocide kill or displace hundreds of thousands every year.  

While our Christmas celebrations often romanticize a single stable, children born today into stables and barns, refugee camps, colonias, barrios, and slums around the world continue to suffer and die. They are defenseless, with few advocates, and their needs rarely are considered. Innocents in every sense of the word, they have done nothing to deserve their fate.

Massacre of the Innocents ~ Illustrated Bible, Monastery of St. Bertin, France (c. 1200 CE)

The Christian Feast of The Holy Innocents, celebrated on December 28, commemorates the death of such defenseless children.  According to historical sources, King Herod the Great, Rome’s man in Judea, already was wearing his crown a little uneasily when Jesus was born.  

Given to tyrannical and repressive behavior,  Herod lived in a state of hypervigilance, fearing both Rome and his own subjects alike.  After a visit from the Magi, the traditional Wise Men from the East who prophesied the birth of another, more powerful ruler capable of usurping his authority, Herod reportedly ordered the slaughter of all boys in Bethlehem under the age of two.

Whether the massacre is historical fact remains an open question, although evidence exists that Herod’s ferocity was real, even when it came to his own sons. But no matter how many Bethlehem children actually died by Herod’s hand, their Feast Day stands as a reminder that power is not always kindly disposed toward innocence. In every age and across multitudes of circumstance, power seeks to maintain itself at the expense of the defenseless.

An especially poignant and mournful Christmas song commemorates the killing of those defenseless infants. Named for Coventry, England, the 16th century Coventry Carol formed part of the Medieval Pageant of the Shearmen and Tailors, an entertainment rooted in 14th century morality plays and provided by tradesmen to their towns.

One of the oldest unadapted carols we have, the Coventry Carol retains both the original lyrics (words attributed to Robert Croo, 1534) and tune (Thomas Mawdyke, 1591). Both were recorded in 1591, and their preservation makes the Coventry Mystery Plays especially memorable.

“Coventry Carol”  ~ Collegium Vocale Gent
Lully, Lullay, Thou little tiny Child
By, by, lully, lullay
Lullay, Thou little Tiny Child
By, by, lully, lullay.
O sisters, too, how may we do
For to preserve this day,
This poor Youngling for whom we do sing
By, by, lully, lullay.
Herod the King, in his raging,
Charged he hath this day;
His men of might, in his own sight,
All young children to slay.
Then woe is me, poor child for thee,
And ever mourn and sigh
For thy parting, neither say nor sing,
By, by, lully, lullay.
Lully, Lullay, Thou little tiny Child
By, by, lully, lullay
Lullay, Thou little Tiny Child
By, by, lully, lullay.

Understandably, Coventry’s carol rarely is heard in retail spaces during the Christmas season, but it’s equally uncommon in congregational settings. Medievalists love it, as do madrigal groups and chamber singers, but it’s not Joy to the World or Adeste Fidelis. Offered the chance to move beyond familial scenes bathed in golden light toward a feast memorializing the slaughter of children, even our violence-ridden culture seems to hesitate.

Perhaps because of its unapologetic realism, the Coventry Carol has become one of a multitude of Christmas songs rarely experienced today.  Too archaic in language, too bleak in tone, too reflective of realities we prefer to ignore, and far too straightforward in its recognition of innocent death, the Coventry Carol makes us nervous.

Ignoring reality has its perils, of course. Birth is only the beginning. Life is movement; time passes, and history continues to unfold. Herod may be gone, but his successors live on, determined to preserve their positions of power at the expense of innocent life.

Certainly we are free to turn away, to avert our faces, to imagine ourselves innocent of complicity in events unfolding in time.  But we cannot profess to love the babe in the manger while choosing to ignore the needs of children living among us.  If we can come to see in Bethlehem’s stall every child of Christmas; if we dare to preserve against slaughter every poor youngling for whom the angels sing; we may yet free them from the world’s hand, and transform their song of darkness into a dance of light.

Dancing Coventry Carol ~ Farah Canale, Principal, Anchorage Ballet

Comments always are welcome.

On Going to the Barn at Christmas

 

Says a country legend told every year:
Go to the barn on Christmas Eve and see
what the creatures do as that long night tips over.
Down on their knees they will go, the fire
of an old memory whistling through their minds.
So I went. Wrapped to my eyes against the cold
I creaked back the barn door and peered in.
From town the church bells spilled their midnight music,
and the beasts listened –
yet they lay in their stalls like stone.
Oh,the heretics!
Not to remember Bethlehem,
or the star as bright as a sun,
or the child born on a bed of straw!
To know only of the dissolving Now!
Still they drowsed on –
citizens of the pure, the physical world,
they loomed in the dark: powerful
of body, peaceful of mind,
innocent of history.
Brothers! I whispered. It is Christmas!
And you are no heretics, but a miracle,
immaculate still as when you thundered forth
on the morning of creation!
As for Bethlehem, that blazing star
still sailed the dark, but only looked for me.
Caught in its light, listening again to its story,
I curled against some sleepy beast, who nuzzled
my hair as though I were a child, and warmed me
the best it could all night.
                                                           “Christmas Poem”  ~  Mary Oliver

Comments always are welcome.
The legend referenced in the poem’s first line also appears in Thomas Hardy’s poem, “The Oxen,” published  on Christmas Eve, 1915, in The Times of London.
I photographed the stone barn in Wabaunsee County, Kansas.

A Silent Singing

South View of Salisbury Cathedral from the Cloisters ~ J.M.W. Turner

Even in this more secular age, a faint scent of chaos wafts through the last days before Christmas. “I love Christmas,” says the woman squinting at her notebook in the checkout line.  “But I swear — if I never make another cookie, it’ll be too soon.”

I love cookies as much as the next person, but my sympathies lie with the woman. My own preparations have become simpler and less time-consuming over the years. Still, I occasionally find myself thinking, while pulling trays from the oven or standing in line at the post office, I could stand some peace and quiet.

Some quiet would be especially nice. The pressures of the Christmas to-do list are one thing, but the season reverberates with noise to the point of distraction. Hearing Justin Bieber’s version of All I Want For Christmas piped through the produce aisle is more annoying than festive, and the irony of Silent Night drowning out conversation speaks for itself.  While seasonal songs blare away, children nag, parents fuss, and the noise made by impatient drivers circling the shopping mall parking lots sounds for all the world like the honking of a thousand demented geese.

Even the hours meant for sleep are disturbed by the ebb and flow of incessant, internal questioning: What have I forgotten? Who will be offended? Can we afford it?  Will there be time?   It’s little wonder that, by Christmas Day, many are ready to throw out the tree with the wrapping paper and get on with it. Twelve days of Christmas seems a horror. Who needs more Christmas, when what we’ve just had has left us exhausted, disappointed, or drained?

Seasonal excesses aside, most people consider their Christmas pleasures — gathering with family and friends; experiencing the beauty of worship; enjoying the exchange of gifts — to be well worth the expenditure of time and energy they require.

What we rarely consider is that our celebrations take place in the context of a world far older than our customs and more expansive than our plans. The world in which we celebrate turns on an ageless axis, independent of human intent and purpose. Though often hidden, that world can be searched out and surprised; occasionally, it reveals itself in unexpected ways.

I experienced that hidden world some years ago, while on holiday in England. After stopping in London, I traveled on to Wiltshire, intending to celebrate Christmas at Salisbury Cathedral.

Arriving without reservations, I found an inn where I could settle, and soon came to enjoy long conversations with the innkeeper and his wife. Cheerful sorts, bubbly and accomodating as keepers of inns should be, they were filled with practical advice for the holiday-makers under their roof.

Eventually, they discovered I hadn’t planned to make the trek to Stonehenge — “that pile of rocks in a pasture,” as another guest put it. Aghast, they implored, “But you must go to Stonehenge!” When I suggested the site might be better visited in summer, they exchanged a glance that probably meant, “Now see what this poor, benighted American is saying.”

Acknowledging that summer solstice celebrations are more publicized and more comfortable, they detailed the advantages of a cold weather visit. “For one thing,” they said with only a hint of a smile, “in the dead of winter there are far fewer tourists clogging up the roads.” At the time, that was true.

Lured by twin promises of unclogged roads and good conversation, I agreed to make the trip. As we traveled and chatted, they unraveled strand after strand of solstice lore.

While I knew that the winter solstice marks the shortest day of the year, and that on that day the sun descends to its lowest point in the sky, I didn’t know that the word itself — solstice — comes from the Latin solstitium, a combination of ‘sun’ (sol) and ‘a stoppage’ (stitium).

According to one legend recounted by my hosts, not only the sun stops his movement at the time of solstice. Those who happen to be in a silent place, with a quiet mind and stilled heart, may hear the earth herself pause: taking time to catch her breath while she waits for the sun to turn and move, beginning his ageless journey toward the spring.

Charmed by the legend, I became increasingly eager to explore the old “pile of rocks in a pasture.” When we arrived, crowds that had gathered for celebration on the day of solstice were gone. There were no ticket-takers, no vendors, no guides. There was only a strange and forlorn emptiness: a cold sun shining through high, thin clouds,  a tumble of implacable, cold gray rock, and winter-singed grass dusted with snow. Around the circle a cold wind sighed, rocking the single bird soaring high above the plain.

Moving toward the stones in silence so complete I could hear blood beating in my ears, a sense of presence, profound and palpable, gripped my heart. Suddenly anxious, no longer certain of our solitude, I turned as if to confront an assailant. No one stood behind me. There were only the rocks, the sky, and a hush of wind singing across Salisbury plain.

Each year as darkness deepens, as days grow shorter and the sun hastens  toward its solstice turn, I remember Salisbury plain: the stones, the silence, and the song. At the time, I hardly imagined that my first experience of that deep and richly textured silence was not to be my last.

Blessedly, such experiences depend neither upon the stones of an ancient culture nor the shades of a people lost in time. A sense of presence, an experience of deep connection to the larger world in which we live, seems intrinsic to life itself. It comes to us as birthright, although there is no predicting how or where it will appear.

Wherever the mystery of connectedness surprises us — in a snowstorm-emptied New York street or a mist-shrouded grove of redwoods; at a baby’s crib or a parent’s grave; in an empty classroom or in an overflowing church — its nature is unmistakable.

If you came this way,
Taking any route, starting from anywhere,
At any time or at any season,
It would always be the same: you would have to put off
Sense and notion. You are not here to verify,
Instruct yourself, inform curiosity
Or carry report. You are here to kneel
Where prayer has been valid. And prayer is more
Than an order of words, the conscious occupation
Of the praying mind, or the sound of the voice praying.
And what the dead had no speech for, when living,
They can tell you, being dead: the communication
Of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.
                                                                          T.S. Eliot ~ Little Gidding

There will be no Stonehenge in my travels this year, no moment of wonder in the emptiness of a windswept English plain. But the sun is lowering, and the pause will come; soon enough, the solstice will arrive. If we are wise, we will find a bit of space, a little emptiness, some moments of silence in the midst of our over-filled lives to embrace its coming and its promise.

Preparing for ourselves a room built of the very solitude and silent attentiveness that so often eludes us, we may well find that, as surely as the sun stops and the earth breathes, the same wind singing silence over our world’s cold-singed plain will touch our hearts with its strange, vertiginous joy.

Comments always are welcome.

Homes Made For the Holidays

The Baldizzi family kitchen ~ Photo by Keiko Niwa

Josephine Baldizzi arrived in this country as a young girl from Sicily. Her family lived on New York’s Lower East Side from 1928 to 1935, their home a small tenement apartment at 97 Orchard Street.

During the Depression, there was no money for Christmas gifts or decorations, so her father, Adolfo, scavaged through their neighborhood for discarded pine branches from other peoples’ trees. Putting his carpentry skills to work, he drilled holes into a piece of plain board and then, using the branches he’d collected, created a Christmas tree for his family. Continue reading

Who’s To Say?

 

Fading but still recognizable, the coneflower drowsing in late afternoon sunlight seemed oblivious to the laughter surrounding it.

“Look!” said the friend who knows me well enough to know the reason for my laughter. “What do you suppose it wants to say?” “I don’t know,” I said, “but it certainly knows how to ask for attention.”

We laughed because the arrangement of the coneflower petals — so much like crossed fingers — reminded us both of my own finger-crossing habit. As a child, caught between my eagerness to take part in adult discussions and parental admonitions not to interrupt others, I often found it hard to plunge into the ebb and flow of conversation. By the time an opportunity presented itself, I’d forgotten what I’d meant to say.

As a memory aid, I began crossing my fingers while waiting for a chance to speak. After others noticed the gesture and learned its purpose, my crossed fingers became a family joke. Over time, they became a family tradition: a recognizable sign that someone had something to say, and would like a chance to say it.

Of course, crossed fingers have taken on multiple meanings over the centuries. The coneflower might have been as interested in concealment as conversation, or it might have been hoping for the luck of a lingering fall. Whatever its purpose, the ambiguity of its gesture fits nicely into an etheree.

 

Tucked
behind
a stiffened
back, two fingers
cross to temper truth;
to void a hasty vow
or lure the touch of Lady
Luck. Superstition, some declare —
but when traditions linger in a
hand, who’s to say where truth and falsehood cross?

 

Comments always are welcome.
For more information on the Etheree, a syllabic poem that, in its basic form, contains ten lines and a total of fifty-five syllables, please click here.