The Word-Winnower

Winnower in the Pontine Marshes ~  Rudolf Lehmann (1819-1905)

 

Wind 
winnowed, 
winter-tossed, 
slighter stanzas 
surge aloft: a shed 
and swirling chaff sentenced 
now to fly ~ sibilant bits  
mixing with metaphor; rising
in clouds thick with sweet, singing rhythm;
seeking the joy of allitérant skies.

 

Comments always are welcome.
For more information on this Etheree, a syllabic poem that, in its basic form, contains ten lines and a total of fifty-five syllables, please click here.
For additional information about Rudolf Lehmann and other examples of his work, click here.

Hiawatha’s Camera

Unidentified field camera, c.1890s
(Click image for more information)

As one of the children who loved to hear of the midnight ride of Paul Revere, I relished my early immersion into the poetry of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. 

One of the so-called Fireside poets — a group which included William Cullen Bryant, John Greenleaf Whittier, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell —  Longfellow entranced my classmates and me with his rhythmic and rhyming version of our nation’s history. If he trimmed, re-stitched, and embroidered that history from time to time, the broad outlines were there, together with vivid scenes we never experienced but heard echoing in stories told by parents and grandparents; we enjoyed it all.

Longfellow often wrote especially for children, but he also included them in works written more directly for adults. We envied the school children who populated his poems, wishing we could have experienced such marvelous sights as those recounted in The Village Blacksmith:

And children coming home from school
Look in at the open door;
They love to see the flaming forge
And hear the bellows roar,
And watch the burning sparks that fly
Like chaff from a threshing-floor.

In time, “The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls” gave voice to my fascination with the sea, and, somewhat obliquely, “Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie” became responsible for the beginning of my blog.  But in my youth, Longfellow’s most popular and long-enduring poem, “The Song of Hiawatha” seemed to be everywhere.

Shortly after his marriage to Mary Potter in 1831, Longfellow journeyed to Europe and Scandinavia, where he encountered the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala.  Compiled by Elias Lönnrot from an extensive Finnish oral tradition that included ballads, lyrical songs, and incantations, the material was published in two editions; the original 32 cantos (1835) later were enlarged into 50 cantos (1849), and this later edition usually is meant when Finns refer to the Kalevala.

Kalevala, the dwelling place of the epic’s chief characters, is a poetic name for Finland which means ‘land of heroes.’ On the website of the Kalevala Society, a useful note about the nature of the epic is offered as introduction:

The world of the Kalevala is mythical – not historical. Therefore, its stories cannot be connected to actual places or events. Essentially, it lives in the realm of the mind’s eye. Lauri Honko, a Finnish scholar of the Kalevala, writes: ‘Many of the stories and their details become easier to understand if we do not try to force them onto the level of historical time and everyday experiences but try to listen to the voice of myth as it speaks to the man who conceives time as mythical.’

Written in unrhymed octosyllabic trochees and dactyls (known as the Kalevala metre), the epic is characterized by alliteration, parallelism, and repetition. Longfellow found the style congenial, and its use in”The Song of Hiawatha” directly reflects the influence of the Kalevala.

This section, perhaps one of the best known portions of Longfellow’s poem, may have been memorized by thousands of grade-school aged children:

By the shores of Gitche Gumee,
By the shining Big-Sea-Water,
Stood the wigwam of Nokomis,
Daughter of the Moon, Nokomis.
Dark behind it rose the forest,
Rose the black and gloomy pine-trees,
Rose the firs with cones upon them;
Bright before it beat the water,
Beat the clear and sunny water,
Beat the shining Big-Sea-Water.

Of course, anyone who grew up in the 1950s — especially in midwestern states — remembers the Hamm’s Beer Company parody of “The Song of Hiawatha.” One of the most famous commercials ever produced, it borrowed its melody from Victor Herbert’s 1911 opera Natoma and paired the music with rhymed couplets similar to those in Longfellow’s poem. 

Once heard, the jingle wasn’t easily forgotten. Even today, the percussive beat of its drumming brings it back in an instant, although many viewers would have been surprised to know the memorable beat of the tom-tom in the commercial wasn’t Native American. Minneapolis advertising legend Ray Mithun, who helped found the Campbell-Mithun agency with $1,500 and three clients, based it on recordings of Haitian voodoo drumming, and beat out the rhythm on an empty carton of Star-Kist tuna cans.

By the time the Hamm’s commercial arrived on the scene, a multitude of Hiawatha parodies had been published, including one written by the Reverend George A. Strong (1832-1912) under the pseudonym of ‘Marc Antony Henderson’ in 1856: one year after the publication of Longfellow’s poem.

Titled “The Song of Milkanwatha: Translated from the Original Feejee” and said to have been published by a company puckishly named ‘Tickell and Grinne,’ the parody imitated Hiawatha chapter by chapter. Over time, variations began to appear.  A much-anthologised, self-contained verse sometimes attributed to Strong and sometimes to ‘Anonymous’ appeared in Mrs. Scott Saxton’sThe Newest Elocution Textbook, published in Denver, Colorado, in 1893. Found in a section titled “Gymnastics in Articulation,” it had been given the title, “Skin Side Inside, or The Modern Hiawatha.”  The version endured at least until I reached second grade; our teacher read us the verse as we dried our snow-caked mittens on the radiators:

He killed the noble Mudjokivis.
Of the skin he made him mittens,
Made them with the fur side inside,
Made them with the skin side outside.
He, to get the warm side inside,
Put the inside skin side outside;
He to get the cold side outside
Put the warm side fur side inside.
That’s why he put the fur side inside,
Why he put the skin side outside,
Why he turned them inside outside.

Never one to allow an opportunity for parody to pass by, Lewis Carroll created his own version of Longfellow’s poem, calling it “Hiawatha’s Photographing.” In his introduction, Carroll begins the fun early; his use of Longfellow’s meter becomes obvious only when the paragraph is restructured:

In an age of imitation,
I can claim no special merit
for this slight attempt at doing
what is known to be so easy.
Any fairly practised writer,
with the slightest ear for rhythm,
could compose, for hours together,
in the easy running metre of “The Song of Hiawatha.”
Having then distinctly stated that I challenge no attention
in the following little poem to its merely verbal jingle,
I must beg the candid reader to confine his criticism
to its treatment of the subject.

In fact, Carroll was quite a camera buff himself, and he filled his parody with amusing details related to cameras, unwilling subjects, the pains of portraiture, and film development — all in a perfect and wonderful imitation of Longfellow’s “Hiawatha.”

From his shoulder Hiawatha
Took the camera of rosewood,
Made of sliding, folding rosewood;
Neatly put it all together.
In its case it lay compactly,
Folded into nearly nothing;
But he opened out the hinges,
Pushed and pulled the joints and hinges,
Till it looked all squares and oblongs,
Like a complicated figure
In the Second Book of Euclid.
This he perched upon a tripod –
Crouched beneath its dusky cover –
Stretched his hand, enforcing silence –
Said “Be motionless, I beg you!”
Mystic, awful was the process.

The entire, hilarious, improbable version of “Hiawatha’s Photographing” can be found here.  Whether you enjoy 19th century poetry, photography, or the humor of parody, it’s well worth a read — preferably aloud, and preferably with an audience, just as Longfellow and Carroll would have wanted.

The Hamm’s is optional.

Comments always are welcome.

Still Grandma’s Girl

Because they never owned a car and never learned to drive, someone made a special effort to bring Grandma and Grandpa – my father’s parents – to the celebration of my third birthday.

Generally, we traveled to their home for Sunday dinners or holiday celebrations: a thirty-five mile trip to a modest frame house in one of south-central Iowa’s tiny coal-mining communities. Why the routine was broken for this occasion I can’t say, but I cherish the snapshot: my only image of this improbable couple.

Born in Sweden, they traveled to America as strangers on the same ship. After meeting and marrying in Minneapolis, they moved to Iowa, struggled through the Depression, raised six children, and delighted in their grand-children. Then, they were gone.

Loving but taciturn, Grandpa preferred time in his workshop to front porch socializing, although he welcomed the presence of grandchildren, and I joined him as often as I could.

Along one edge of his work bench, chisels and awls marched in formation, arranged by height. Secured to a wall, saws, axes, and an adze gleamed in the faint light, rust-free and ready for work.

A small cubby held tacks, nails, and screws in assorted tins, while close by the unlocked door, a small cigar box contained a scattering of nickels and pennies, as well as packs of cigarettes and matches.

In those days of penny candy, the contents of the cigar box represented a fortune to a child. When I asked — very casually and with studied disinterest — if the money was his, Grandpa said it had been left by friends who’d stopped by for a smoke.

Decades later, I realized the truth. Those ‘friends’ were strangers: men riding the rails; men stopping off where they hoped to find a meal, a day’s work, or perhaps even a cigarette; men who contributed what they could to ensure a smoke for the next man off the rails.

Grandpa, my dad, and the workshop ~ ready for company

While the men busied themselves in the back yard, the women clustered on the front porch, stitching smiling radishes and dancing tomatoes across acres of cotton sacking.

While they worked, I snapped beans, sorted thread, or wandered off to indulge myself in a long-standing family ritual called Checking Out The Pantry. Long and narrow, lit by a single hanging bulb and lined with shelves that climbed higher than any child’s sight, Grandma’s pantry was a marvel.

On the right, jars of home-canned vegetables and fruits, jellies and jams, spiced crabapples, and luscious bread-and-butter pickles shimmered in the dim light.

To the left, Saltines and gingersnaps snuggled up against cupcakes and rolls from the Omar man. Jewel Tea premiums — pie plates, pitchers, and baking dishes — shared shelf space with store-bought cookies and homemade pies. A footed cake plate with an aluminum cover sat next to my favorite kitchen tool — a glass whipping bowl with a combination lid and beaters that belonged to any child patient enough to whip the cream.There were fennel and caraway seeds for limpa bread, tins of sprats, and bags of salt for preserving cod or making ice cream.

The rule for the house was the rule for the pantry. Children were to look, but not touch; we rarely snitched a cookie without asking, and we never picked up a figurine in the living room, or rearranged the colored glass bottles in the kitchen window.

But life with Grandma entailed more than “just looking”. In her mind, any child with time enough to stare into a pantry was a child with time to help out — especially with cleaning.

Dish-washing, dusting, and sweeping were part of our daily routine and didn’t qualify as cleaning. Serious house-cleaning took place according to some mysterious schedule that was impossible to predict. Grandma could clean with the best of them when she put her mind to it, but she often had other, more interesting things on her mind. Still, when the spirit moved and she declared, “Time to Clean!” the process was a wonder to behold.

Spring and autumn were dedicated to window washing, rug-beating, curtain laundering, and porch-painting. With windows thrown open to air the house, neighbors could track her progress by the scents: fresh lavender for the drawers; Spic-N-Span for linoleum; lemon oil for furniture, and vinegar for glass.

In winter, a different kind of cleaning took place. Between Christmas and the first days of the New Year, Grandma set aside dusting and sweeping for a project terrifying in its scope.

While Grandpa fled the house and neighbors gave her a wide berth, Grandma went to work with a zeal that reminded my father of Sherman’s March to the Sea. She inventoried every closet, emptied and rearranged every drawer, looked under every bed and sorted through every piece of paper and clothing in the house, seeking the forgotten, the unused and the unnecessary.

Karin Larsson at the Linen Cupboard - Carl Larsson

She was by nature a saver, frugal and self-sufficient, but she also believed that if we hadn’t used it, looked at it, or remembered it in the past year, we didn’t need it. If we’d forgotten the existence of a toy, someone else should play with it. Unused items could become newly useful in another home. Was there a knick-knack no one enjoyed? It might bring joy to someone else.

Of course her definitions of ‘useful’ and ‘necessary’ were remarkably elastic: akin to William Morris’s dictum that there should be nothing in our homes that we “do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.”

Boxes of rarely viewed photographs, letters written during the wars, greeting cards from grandchildren, and postcards from friends in the old country always were saved. Worn towels, outgrown clothing, lace trim from old bed linens, and fabric scraps were saved and transformed into quilts or rugs. The enormous roasting pan stayed. Wooden barrels stayed. Buttons and bias tape stayed.

But unclaimed dishes from a year’s worth of church dinners? Costumes for dolls that had been broken or given away? Unread magazines? Outgrown shoes or broken mirrors? Their fate was sealed.

In the end, very little was thrown away and very little more was given away, but Grandma entered each New Year knowing precisely what her house contained, and precisely where to find it.

Looking back, I’m not surprised the family rolled its collective eyes when Grandma began her battle with clutter. But she was determined to maintain her annual ritual and, since I was available during Christmas vacation, she often pressed me into service.

We spent hours working together: shoving and carrying, lifting and rearranging. No matter how tedious the labor, no matter how frustrating the hours I spent working rather than playing, when we were done I felt a bit lighter myself, as though all that excess, all those unnecessary accretions had been a burden pressing down on my own young life.

And that, I suppose, was her point. In the end, the unnecessary and the unwanted turn out to be burdens, and it’s always best to enter the New Year with as few burdens as possible.

As each new year begins, memories of my grandmother and her routine never fail to surface.

For years those memories have caused me to do my own cleaning of closets and drawers – looking things over, sorting them out, making decisions with a certain sense of urgency, as though Grandma herself might suddenly step through the door, ready to judge my efforts.

This year, with so much sorting and digging and dispersing already behind me because of my move, household clutter isn’t an issue. But freed from the need to sort through possessions, I find myself pondering a new possibility: what would happen if we approached life itself as Grandma approached her house? What if her lessons about the unnecessary, the useless, and the unwanted have broader application?

Like most people, I have a lifetime of preconceptions accumulated in the corners of my mind. There are a few prejudices that could stand a good sorting, not to mention a few irrationalities.

Some tendrils of laziness could stand to be pruned, and those small grudges that litter our lives like crumbs on a carpet would sweep up easily enough once we began. If a light film of anger dims the world’s light, it would take almost no effort to wipe it away: only a bit of will, and a little energy.

Standing at the end of one year and looking toward the start of another through my grandmother’s eyes, I already feel lighter. It’s good to clean house.

Comments always are welcome.

 

The Carol of the Guardians

Common or Eurasian Kingfisher – Alcedo atthis (Wikimedia)

Christmas traditions vary from family to family and culture to culture, but nearly everyone who celebrates cherishes at least one or two. Some have been passed down for centuries. Others are newer, but no less beloved: a certain Christmas Eve dish; a favorite cookie recipe; a must-see movie; candlelight services at midnight.

My own celebrations recall the traditions of my Swedish family: cardamom seed buns and pickled herring; strings of cranberries on the tree; bayberry candles, and sweet, tinkling angel chimes.  Pink and lavender trees, Mannheim Steamroller, and Elves on the Shelves have their place, but I prefer my family’s older ways, and probably always will.

Still, something new occasionally emerges from the clutter and cacaphony of our commercialized season to attract my attention. Some years ago, a snippet of song stopped me as I shopped in a local grocery. Light and rhythmic, it lilted through the store: a memorable melody with indecipherable words sung in an unfamiliar language.

Eventually, I found the source of the song and learned its extraordinary history.

Riu, Riu Chiu” is a part of the Cancionero de Upsala [sic], also known as the Cancionero del Duque de Calabria or the Cancionero de Venecia, a volume of mostly anonymous Spanish music printed in Venice in 1556.

The only known original, held at the library of Uppsala University in Sweden, either was “highlighted by Rafael Mitjana y Gordon in 1904” or “edited in 1909 by Rafael Mitjana,” depending upon which source you consult. Despite uncertainties about the date, Mitjana’s spelling of ‘Upsala’ is correct, since the name of the town wasn’t changed to ‘Uppsala’ until the major Swedish spelling reform of 1906.

That a collection of Spanish songs, printed in Italy, should end up at a Swedish university appears to be one of the more delightful accidents of history. The volume may have been acquired as war booty when the Swedish army plundered Prague in 1631, or 1648, although how the manuscript traveled to Prague isn’t clear.

In any event, “Riu, Riu Chiu” is part of a collection titled:

Villancicos de diuersos Autores, a dos, y a tres, y a qvatro, y a cinco bozes, agora nvevamente corregidos. Ay mas ocho tonos de Canto llano, y ocho tonos de Canto de Organo para que puedam aprouechar los que, A cantar començaren. Venetiis, Apud Hieronymum Scotum, MDLVI.

This translation not only clarifies the collection’s contents, it sugggests its broad appeal :

Villancicos from divers authors, for two, and for three, and for four, and for five voices, now newly corrected. There are also eight tones of plainchant, and eight tones of organum for the benefit of those that are still learning to sing. Venice, by Hieronymus (Girolamo) Scotto, 1556.

Two other songbooks, the Cancionero Musical del Palacio and the Cancionero de Medinaceli, contain all the richness and variety of the Spanish Renaissance in their collections of compositions for instruments and voices. On the other hand, the Upsala collection has preserved fifty-four villancicos.

Over time, villancico has come to refer primarily to Christmas carols, but the songs, rooted in village life, were much like our folksongs. Sung in Castilian Spanish, Catalan, and Galician-Portuguese, most of the villancicos were secular, but twelve in the Cancionero de Upsala were meant for Christmas, including “Riu, Riu Chiu,” attributed to Mateo Flecha the Elder.

Just as Swedish spelling reforms cause difficulty for people dealing with early documents, changes in the Spanish language have left room for interpretation when it comes to the lyrics of “Riu, Riu Chiu.”

Hugh Keyte and Andrew Parrott, editors of The New Oxford Book of Carols, tell us that:

“Riu, riu chiu” was a traditional call of Spanish shepherds when guarding their flocks in a riverside fold. Elsewhere, the catchy tune is found in a variant form with a secular shepherd-song, and it may derive from a genuine example.

Jula Karolaro, on his Yuletide Carols site reports that “Riu, riu chiu” is the call of a nightingale, or the call of a shepherd to his sheep. As he puts it:

The first line in Spanish is ambiguous, as to whether the riverbank is protecting a nightingale, or a shepherd is protecting his flock at a riverbank. So in both translations, I equivocated a bit in that first line by vaguely referring to a “riverside guardian”.

Lisa Theriot, in notes accompanying her own translation, says:

“Riu, riu, chiu” is meant to be onomatopoeia for birdsong, though the type of bird is still under debate. Leading candidates are the nightingale, for the beauty of his song, and the kingfisher, because of the concept of guarding the riverbank.

After listening to recordings of the kingfisher, Lisa found herself favoring its role as the anonymous bird. Well acquainted with the kingfisher’s call, as well as its willingness to aggressively defend its territory, I’m more than happy myself to consider “Riu, Riu Chiu” the “Kingfisher’s Carol.”

Whatever questions remain about the history of the villancico, we can be grateful for the graceful translation of the lyrics provided by the San Francisco Bach Choir, and the happy transmission of the melody through the centuries.

Today, versions of the carol abound. Everyone from Chanticleer to the Monkees have given it a whirl. But in this age of overly-produced recordings, the simplicity of the version offered by the Capella de Ministrers, an early music group formed in 1987 in Valencia, Spain, brings life to a timeless song of the season.

Cancionero de Upsala/Cancionero del Duque de Calabria ~ Atríbuido a Mateo Flecha el Viejo
Riu, riu, chiu
la guarda ribera
Dios guardó el lobo
de nuestra cordera
Dios guardó el lobo
de nuestra cordera.
El lobo rabioso
la quiso morder
Mas Dios Poderoso
la supo defender
Quizo la hacer que
no pudiese pecar
Ni aun original
esta virgen no tuviera.
Riu, riu, chiu…
Este que es nascido
es El Gran Monarca
Cristo Patriarca
de carne vestido
Ha nos redimido
con se hacer chiquito
Aunque era infinito
finito se hiciera.
Riu, riu, chiu …
Pues que ya tenemos
lo que deseamos
Todos juntos vamos
presentes llevemos
Todos le daremos
nuestra voluntad
Pues a se igualar
con nosotros viniera.

Riu, riu, chiu
The river bank is protected
God has kept the wolf
From our ewe lamb
God has kept the wolf
From our ewe lamb
The rabid wolf
Wanted to bite her
But Almighty God
Knew how to defend her
He willed to make her
Unable to sin
Even original sin
This virgin did not have
Riu, riu, chiu…
The one who is born
Is the Great Monarch
Christ the Patriarch
Clothed in flesh
He has redeemed us
By making himself small
Though he was infinite
He became finite
Riu, riu, chiu…
Now we have
What we desire
Let us go together
To present him gifts
Let us all give him
Our will
For he came
As our equal
Riu, riu, chiu…

Comments are welcome.

A View to the East

The simplicity of a country Christmas is undeniable.

Twisted and threaded through twin pieces of rusted rebar that serve as mailbox supports, the plastic garland is older than the children tumbling from the school bus. Still, its shabbiness hardly is noticed by the mail carrier, or by the slippered woman trudging down the lane from her house. Perhaps, she thinks, there will be a card.

From a distance, the garland appears perfect: full and fresh. From a distance, even plastic communicates the determination and joy pulsing in the woman’s heart. In this house, she thinks, we will celebrate. We will mark the season. We will share our joy.

Farther down the road, a simple wreath adorns the broken gate propped against the fence. Its ribbon flutters in the wind, attracting attention, drawing the eye over the gate and into a pasture. There’s a brush pile, and some uncleared cedar. A few trees, bulldozed and left to die, wait to be added to the pile. No cattle roam, no stock tank or pond offers refreshment — not even a piece of rusted, broken-down machinery offers resistance to the despondent wind sighing across the field.

With no house in sight, the wreath seems slightly odd until the eye travels beyond the brush pile to the single, spreading oak hung with drops of red, silver and gold. The ornaments are the size of basketballs, or even larger; they would have to be, to be seen at such a distance.

It must have required a team of youngsters to get them into the tree. Swinging in the breeze, beautiful in their simplicity and striking in their isolation, they whisper their poignant reminder – in this emptiness, beyond this fading light and behind this unworked land, lies human presence.

At night, the country shines. As darkness overcomes the fields and hedgerows, a star flickers into life atop a windmill: a reminder of the unseen herd that gathers at the tank. Curves of colored lights mark the end of a lane. A fire flickers in the distance. Where homes cling more closely to the frail web of blacktop linking them together, the shimmer of lighted trees or occasional twinkling nets flung across bushes light a path for homebound travelers.

For eyes accustomed to the insistent glow of city celebrations, country lights seem frail and faint: the singular star, the barely visible flicker of presence impoverished and insignificant. For those who equate Christmas with lavish celebration, obsessive consumption, and elegant gluttony, the modesty of a single star can evoke pity, or contempt.

Strangely, equating Christmas with extravagance often leads to complaints; there are too many obligations; too many demands; too many expectations. Somewhat ironically, the commitment to extravagance can end in a sense of impoverishment: a conviction that there never will be enough money, or energy, or time to celebrate properly, and that any effort to create the perfect holiday inevitably will fall short.

The Christian church, of course, always has offered an alternative to the extravagance and angst of the holiday season.

Despite being nearly forgotten and often dismissed as irrelevant, these dark December days, these days we love to fill with light, and chatter, and exhaustion, constitute the forgotten season of Advent.

A modest season, shy and uneasy with extravagance, its days are meant for emptying: for lying fallow, for waiting. To embrace the darkness in which the dimmest star can shine; to shiver in a cold destined to be filled with the warmth of human presence; to acknowledge human limits in the face of infinite longings, is to discover Advent. Simple and unadorned, occasionally austere; and determinedly ordinary, Advent nurtures one of the rarest of gifts — celebration on a human scale.

One of most beautiful tributes to Advent and perhaps the most modest of all Christmas songs was written by Eleanor Farjeon (1881-1965). Published as Carol of Advent in Part 3 of The Oxford Book of Carols (1928), People, Look East is set to BESANÇON, an ancient carol which first appeared in Christmas Carols New and Old (1871) as the setting for Shepherds, Shake Off Your Drowsy Sleep.

Farjeon, a native Londoner and devout Catholic, is best remembered for her poem Morning Has Broken, often sung as a hymn and popularized by Yusuf Islam (formerly Cat Stevens). A prolific writer of children’s books and Hans Christian Andersen award-winner for The Little Bookroom, her poetry is remarkably plain, and yet perfectly suited for musical settings.

I’ve always been touched by Farjeon’s admonition in People, Look East. “Make your house fair as you are able,” she says. If it lies within your means, trim the hearth with a candle or two. Set the table with your best dishes, and smooth out the best cloth you can find. Dress a tree with pinecones, or twine a bit of garland around a fence or mailbox. But don’t frustrate yourself trying to outdo the neighbors’ lighting. Don’t exhaust yourself in kitchen or malls. Above all, don’t try to fill your heart’s void with gifts, or attempt to replicate a past that never was.

And, as you prepare your house, prepare your heart as well to celebrate as the world herself celebrates: guarding an empty nest, walking the fallow field, keeping watch under darkened skies for stars flickering into life. In the midst of the world’s extravagant preparations, take time to raise your eyes and look to the horizon, lest you miss the most modest of comings.

 

“People, Look East”  ~  The Deller Consort
People, look east, the time is near
Of the crowning of the year.
Make your house fair as you are able,
Trim the hearth and set the table.
People, look east
Love, the guest, is on his way.
Furrows, be glad, though earth is bare
One more seed is planted there.
Give of your strength the seed to nourish
That in course the flower may flourish.
People, look east
Love, the rose, is on his way.
Birds, though ye long have ceased to build,
Guard the nest that must be filled.
Even the hour when wings are frozen
Evil flesh in time has chosen.
People, look east
Love, the bird, is on his way.
Stars, keep a watch when night is dim,
One more light the bowl shall brim.
Shining beyond the frosty weather,
Bright as sun and moon together,
People, look east
Love, the star, is on his way.
Angels, announce to man and beast
Him who cometh from the east.
Set every peak and valley humming
With the word, the Lord is coming.
People, look east
Love, the Lord, is on his way.

Comments always are welcome.
While I didn’t intentionally schedule my move to a new home on the first Sunday of Advent, and although I didn’t set out to have an eastern exposure in my new home, both of those things happened. An edited version of this post, previously published, seemed to fit the occasion.

Moon Lake Legacies

Moon Lake Casino Pier ~ Featured in “A Streetcar Named Desire”

Tucked between Yazoo Pass and the Mississippi River, a few miles north of Clarksdale and a little south of the Helena, Arkansas bridge, it sat alongside Moon Lake, an oxbow good for fishing, if not for navigation and commerce.

Far from a typical bed-and-breakfast, Uncle Henry’s Inn and Restaurant provided its guests with a spacious gallery, a west-facing view over the lake, no scheduled activities, and plenty of solitude. Not every lodging encourages sitting and thinking, but, whether by accident or intention, Uncle Henry’s did.

Established as an Elks’ Lodge in 1926, the place was purchased in 1933 by a local named William Wilkerson. Known as the Moon Lake Club, it became a Prohibition landmark famous for good food, high living, and assorted illegalities: primarily forms of gambling. Connections to the Chicago mob led to a loss of respectability, but locals eventually cut those ties, and the Club prospered as a family destination for dancing, dining, and swimming. 

In 1946, it was purchased by Henry Trevino, the foster father of Sarah Bates Wright, and became Uncle Henry’s Place. In time, the Club seems to have passed out of the family’s control, but in 1986 Sarah entered into litigation that led to her reacquisition of the property.  After extensive renovations, she and her son, George Jr., re-opened the restaurant and inn, maintaining Uncle Henry’s name in honor of her step-father.

By the time I arrived, the place had become a little shabby and quite a bit quirky, imbued with fading elegance and filled with piles of indiscriminate memories. A combination of dust, torn draperies, and the occasional skeletal mouse quietly fading away behind a sofa made it easy to imagine Uncle Henry’s as a prototypical Southern Lady: temporarily down on her luck, but genteel and dignified nonetheless.

Obviously, Uncle Henry’s was a treasured part of local lore and legend, not to mention local life. As guests gathered for dinner, the room filled with regular customers who’d been coming for so many years the waitress knew every answer before asking, politely: “Will you be having the usual this evening?”

Somewhat later, when I mentioned Moon Lake to a pair of fishermen eating breakfast in the Cleveland, Mississippi Huddle House, they stopped eating and grinned. “Did you stop by Uncle Henry’s?” one asked. When I allowed as how I’d not only stopped but had lingered for a few days, the other man said, “Well, it’s not the Holiday Inn, that’s for sure. But it’s a whole lot more interesting.”

It certainly wasn’t the Holiday Inn. George hinted at that himself when I called for a reservation after a late, impulsive decision to attend Clarksdale’s Juke Joint Festival. Every motel had been booked for weeks, and most had waiting lists, but when  I called the humorously-named but perfectly respectable Shack Up Inn, the proprietor said, “You better call up to Uncle Henry’s. I believe I heard they had a cancellation, and they might be able to put you up. Of course, they might not, but you call George. He’ll tell you how things are.”

As it turned out, Uncle Henry could put me up and George did tell me how things were. “Now, you know this isn’t the Hilton,” he said on the phone. “We’re old and comfortable, but you’re not going to have that wi-fi business or a jacuzzi in your room.”

After my arrival, he added another caveat or two. “There aren’t any keys to the rooms,” he said, “so be sure you’ve got the right one. And don’t take a shower except before five and after ten at night, because sometimes water leaks from your shower down through the ceiling into the dining room.”

Despite the less than perfect accomodations, I was willing to adapt, since Uncle Henry’s had a couple of things going for it no Hilton or Holiday Inn could dream of matching — it had played host to William Faulkner and Tennessee Williams, another pair of Mississippi boys who’d done really, really well for themselves.

I hadn’t intended to land in the lap of Faulkner and Williams when I decided to head to the blues festival, but that’s exactly what happened.

Faulkner frequented the Moon Lake Club as an adult — sometimes sharing time there with Williams — but Tennessee Williams’s connections were forged in childhood. His early impressions and memories, combined with the extraordinarily colorful history of the place, helped him transform the Club into the Moon Lake Casino in dramas such as Summer and Smoke, Eccentricities of a Nightingale, The Glass Menagerie, Orpheus Descending, and A Streetcar Named Desire.

Sitting in the gallery one afternoon, re-reading Williams’s plays and pondering what it must have required for him to transform this sleepy Mississippi world into works of dramatic art, I happened upon quite a different piece: an essay titled, The Catastrophe of Success.

An addendum to a copy of The Glass Menagerie I’d tucked into my bag, the essay originally was published in a 1947 edition of The New York Times, three years after the Chicago opening of The Glass Menagerie and during a time when Williams finally was receiving recognition as a serious playwright.

In the languor of those Mississippi afternoons, I found the essay particularly resonant — not only because I was in the playwright’s own country, but also because his words resonated with all the clarity and force of a plantation bell.

Most of us hope to succeed in one way or another, but Williams did succeed, and did so marvelously well. As he reflected on the circumstances of his life and career in the essay, the authority implicit in Williams’ words is undeniable, and worth considering.

Plantation bell ~ Uncle Henry’s Place, Moon Lake, Mississippi
The sort of life that I had previous to this popular success was one that required endurance, a life of clawing and scratching along a sheer surface and holding on tight with raw fingers to every inch of rock higher than the one caught hold of before. But it was a good life because it was the sort of life for which the human organism is created.
I was not aware of how much vital energy had gone into this struggle until the struggle was removed. I was out on a level plateau with my arms still thrashing and my lungs still grabbing at air that no longer resisted. This was security at last…
You cannot arbitrarily say to yourself, I will continue my life as it was before this thing, Success, happened to me. But once you fully apprehend the vacuity of a life without struggle you are equipped with the basic means of salvation.
Once you know this is true, that the heart of man, his body and his brain, are forged in a white-hot furnace for the purpose of conflict (the struggle of creation) and that with the conflict removed, the man is a sword cutting daisies, [once you understand] that not privation but luxury is the wolf at the door and that the fangs of this wolf are all the little vanities and conceits and laxities that Success is heir to – with this knowledge you are at least in a position of knowing where danger lies…
Then what is good? An obsessive interest in human affairs, plus a certain amount of compassion and moral conviction that first made the experience of living something that must be translated into pigment or music or bodily movement or poetry or prose or anything that’s dynamic and expressive – that’s what’s good for you if you’re at all serious in your aims.
William Saroyan wrote a great play on this theme, that purity of heart is the one success worth having. “In the time of your life – live!” says Saroyan. That time is short, and it doesn’t return again. It is slipping away while I write this and while you read it, and the monosyllable of the clock is Loss, loss, loss, unless you devote your heart to its opposition.

Re-reading Williams’s essay today, I imagine the scent of dogwood and azalea, the dark, moody flow of the great river, and low murmur of mist-shrouded voices.

Across the Helena Bridge, juke joints glisten in the rain, and from the shores along the river a plaintive, tremulous cry falls and rises like riffs of breeze across the Delta.

Rocking in the early evening gloom, I hear the clatter of a small boy’s feet running headlong across the gallery toward an unimaginable future, surefooted as any child still certain of his world. “Time is short,” he shouts back across the decades, his words twining like unstoppable vines through sweetgum and magnolia.

Hearing his voice, I stop my rocking. Planting my feet on boards that creak and complain like the bones of time itself I rise, my thoughts turning toward creation, while the clock ticks its loss, and the heart counts its gain, and life begins anew.

 

Comments always are welcome.
Today, George, his mother Sarah, and many of the locals who contributed so much color to Uncle Henry’s have passed away, and the Moon Lake landmark no longer is in operation. Needless to say, the memories remain.

The Poets’ Birds: Flight

White-faced ibis (Plegadis chihi) ~ Brazoria County, Texas
(Click image for more detail)

Despite his prolific output and the award of a Nobel Prize in 1971, I’ve only recently come to appreciate the work of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Despite decades of acclaim for his poetry, publications in English represent only a small portion of his oeuvre, apparently due in part to the difficulties of translation;  I simply hadn’t come across them until I found them on the internet.

The details of Neruda’s life are fascinating. A committed Communist and political activist, he returned to Chile in 1953, following some years in exile. Eventually, he began producing less ideologically influenced love poetry, as well as nature poetry celebrating every aspect of the world in which we live.

 In their book Earth Tones: The Poetry of Pablo Neruda, Manuel Duran and Margery Safir note that Neruda began trying to speak to everyday people simply and clearly, on a level that anyone could understand.  In his examination of quite common, everyday things, they say, “Neruda gives us time to examine a particular plant, a stone, a flower, a bird, an aspect of modern life, at leisure. We look at the object, handle it, turn it around, all the sides are examined with love, care, attention. This is, in many ways, Neruda at his best.”

In his poem “Bird,” he offers his attention to their flight in a remarkable and wholly memorable way.

It was passed from one bird to another,
the whole gift of the day.
The day went from flute to flute,
went dressed in vegetation,
in flights which opened a tunnel
through which the wind would pass
to where birds were breaking open
the dense blue air –
and there, night came in.
When I returned from so many journeys,
I stayed suspended and green
between sun and geography –
I saw how wings worked,
how perfumes are transmitted
by feathery telegraph,
and from above I saw the path,
the springs and the roof tiles,
the fishermen at their trades,
the trousers of the foam;
I saw it all from my green sky.
I had no more alphabet
than the swallows in their courses,
the tiny, shining water
of the small bird on fire
which dances out of the pollen.

“Caía de un pájaro a otro
todo lo que el día trae,
iba de flauta en flauta el día,
iba vestido de verdura
con vuelos que abrían un túnel,
y por allí pasaba el viento
por donde las aves abrían
el aire compacto y azul:
por allí entraba la noche.
Cuando volví de tantos viajes
me quedé suspendido y verde
entre el sol y la geografía:
vi còmo trabajan las alas,
còmo se transmite el perfume
por un telégrafo emplumado
y desde arriba vi el camino,
los manantiales, las tejas,
los pescadores a pescar,
los pantalones de la espuma,
todo desde mi cielo verde.
No tenía más alfabeto
que el viaje de las golondrinas,
el agua pura y pequeñita
del pequeño pájero ardiendo
que baila saliendo del polen.”

 

Comments always are welcome.
For more biographical details of Neruda’s life and politics, the Wikipedia page is useful.
For a history of his development as a poet and critique of his work, see the entry at The Poetry Foundation website.