Take Two Poems, and Call Me in the Morning

The path forward

Anxiety. Astonishment. Anguish. Anger. The cross-currents of emotion swirling through the nation as we await the coming Presidential Inauguration are easy to identify, but difficult to navigate.

Ill at ease and confessing to exhaustion, a friend may have spoken for multitudes when she said, “I’m sick of it all. I’m sick of the nastiness; sick of conflict; and sick with worry that, on January 21, we’ll find the real struggles have only begun.”

Despite the seriousness of her concerns, I couldn’t help smiling at her references to sickness. My mother, a consummate diagnostician, mastered the art of separating true illness from  childhood excuses before I reached first grade. I always knew when I’d been found out, because she’d dismiss me with a saying far more common in the 1950s than it is now: “Take two aspirin, and call me in the morning.” It was her way of saying, “It’s not serious, and you’ll be fine.” She always kept an eye on her little excuse-maker, but in almost every instance I was fine, and life went on.

Recently, I found myself thinking that a slight revision of her advice might be useful in these tumultuous times. “Take two poems and call me in the morning” does have  bit of a ring to it, but the phrase also raises a question: which poems should be prescribed? 

I often turn to a pair of poems from Wendell Berry: one quite familiar, the other less so. His poem titled “The Peace of Wild Things,” first published in 1968, is often quoted because of the comfort it offers:

When despair grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting for their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

My favorite of his poems, titled “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front,” is sharper, with more of an edge. The sharpness makes it especially appropriate for a time marked by edginess; what it lacks in gentle comfort, it makes up for in wisdom.

Love the quick profit, the annual raise,
vacation with pay. Want more
of everything ready-made. Be afraid
to know your neighbors and to die
And you will have a window in your head.
Not even your future will be a mystery
any more. Your mind will be punched in a card
and shut away in a little drawer.
When they want you to buy something
they will call you. When they want you
to die for profit they will let you know.
So, friends, every day do something
that won’t compute. Love the Lord.
Love the world. Work for nothing.
Take all that you have and be poor.
Love someone who does not deserve it.
Denounce the government and embrace
the flag. Hope to live in that free
republic for which it stands.
Give your approval to all you cannot
understand. Praise ignorance, for what man
has not encountered he has not destroyed.
Ask the questions that have no answers.
Invest in the millennium. Plant sequoias.
Say that your main crop is the forest
that you did not plant,
that you will not live to harvest.
Say that the leaves are harvested
when they have rotted into the mold.
Call that profit. Prophesy such returns.
Put your faith in the two inches of humus
that will build under the trees
every thousand years.
Listen to carrion — put your ear
close, and hear the faint chattering
of the songs that are to come.
Expect the end of the world. Laugh.
Laughter is immeasurable. Be joyful
though you have considered all the facts.
So long as women do not go cheap
for power, please women more than men.
Ask yourself: Will this satisfy
a woman satisfied to bear a child?
Will this disturb the sleep
of a woman near to giving birth?
Go with your love to the fields.
Lie easy in the shade. Rest your head
in her lap. Swear allegiance
to what is nighest your thoughts.
As soon as the generals and the politicos
can predict the motions of your mind,
lose it. Leave it as a sign
to mark the false trail, the way
you didn’t go. Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.
 

Comments always are welcome.

Seeking Distance

Lake Hyatt ~ Tyler County, Texas

As conditions around the world have changed and phrases such as ‘social distancing’ and ‘self-isolation’ have become more common than any of us would like, I’ve found myself thinking again of a well-loved poet.

For Mary Oliver, social distance wasn’t imposed. It was freely chosen, and the solitude it offered became a cherished part of her life. Perhaps my favorite of her poems, “How I Go to the Woods” always makes me smile. It stands as an affirmation of one of life’s deepest truths: when in nature — whether that nature be woods, prairies, or a backyard garden — we’re never truly alone.


Ordinarily I go to the woods alone, with not
a single
friend, for they are all smilers and talkers
and therefore unsuitable.
I don’t really want to be witnessed talking to
the catbirds
or hugging the old black oak tree. I have
my way of
praying, as you no doubt have yours.
Besides, when I am alone I can become
invisible, I can sit
on the top of a dune as motionless as an
uprise of weeds,
until the foxes run by unconcerned. I can
hear the almost
unhearable sound of the roses singing.
If you have ever gone to the woods with me,
I must love
you very much.

 

Comments always are welcome.

Darkness, Light, and the City

A historical note from the Museum of the City of New York  ~ July 13, 2019
Photo ~ Ariella Axelbank
Saturday’s blackout in New York City was neither so extensive nor so dramatic as the one that occurred forty-two years ago, but it evoked memories nonetheless. Given the remarkably coincidental blackouts, my 2014 reflections on the experience seem timely; New York’s power is back on, but the memories linger.

On July 13, 1977, at 8:37 p.m., a lightning strike at the Buchanan South electrical substation on New York’s Hudson River tripped two circuit breakers. At the time, Buchanan South should have been converting 345,000 volts of electricity from the Indian Point nuclear plant to lower voltage, but a loose locking nut, combined with a faulty upgrade cycle, meant that the breaker wasn’t able to reclose in order to allow power to resume flowing.

When a second lightning strike caused two more 345,000 volt transmission lines to fail, only one reclosed properly. Given the loss of power from Indian Point and the over-loading of two more major transmission lines, Con Edison tried to initiate fast-start generation at 8:45 p.m., but no one was overseeing the station, and the remote start failed.

That’s when the lights went out at 123rd and Broadway, in the Morningside Heights section of Manhattan. Newly returned from my time in Liberia, I was visiting friends who also had worked there. While we enjoyed the twin pleasures of after-dinner conversation and the view from their eighth floor apartment, all of New York seemed to disappear.

It’s common enough for storms to cause lights to flicker and dim, and power can go out in a neighborhood even without a storm. Transformers explode; winds bring down power lines; squirrels play tag; and through it all people sigh and complain, wondering how long it will be until they can make coffee, turn on the computer, or watch tv in air-conditioned comfort.

But that night in Manhattan, in the moments between Con Ed’s failed re-start and the lighting of the first arson fires in the street, we knew something was different. Looking down from our perch, we watched traffic come to a halt as astounded drivers tried to get their bearings and control their anxiety. Scanning the horizon, we found no horizon: only a black, impenetrable abyss stretched before us.

The night seemed endless. A vibrato of sirens, the delicate horror of shattering glass, the ebb and flow of crowds around piles of goods looted from bodegas and coffee shops were utterly surreal. Lit by the glow of flames and surrounded by smoke from burning tires, the scene resembled an etching by Albrecht Dürer.

Eventually, as the fires began to be extinguished and the thinning crowds gradually lost their appetite for mayhem, we rested: three sleeping as one kept watch, and all of us wondering what would be next.

As the first tendrils of light began to climb around buildings and into the streets, the sense of relief was palpable. Civilization’s veneer had worn a bit thin over the night, not only because of the arson and looting which erupted in the darkness, but also because of the darkness itself. As we plunged into that inexplicable abyss, candles and flashlights did nothing to allay fears so primitive only the rising of the sun could bring release.

In the morning brilliance, the entire city seemed to stretch, heaving a vast sigh of relief. On the street, someone opened a fire hydrant, allowing a faucet’s worth of water to stream down, gentle and benign. Filled with sudden good humor and ready to trade stories, New Yorkers lined up with soap and towels, toothbrushes, plastic wash basins, and razors, ready to become human again.

Thinking back to that night, I remember my response with absolute clarity. I wanted to go back to Liberia. Today, I might not be so inclined. But at the time, looking down into those chaos-filled streets, the West African bush seemed preferable to civilization in any number of ways: not the least of which was the quality of its darkness.

I had learned to experience darkness as a blessing during childhood. Dressed for midwestern safari, I’d clamber into the car beside my dad and off we’d go, traveling graveled country roads that led far from the lights of our little town. In summer, we’d pull out quilts and lay on the ground, amazed by the bright river of stars streaming across the sky. If it was cold and snowy, we’d wrap in blankets for extra warmth, drink hot chocolate, and admire Orion, with his belt and his sword.

I learned the constellations — Orion, the Big Dipper, Cassiopeia, Scorpio — and I began to learn those exotically-named stars: Aldebaran, Antares, Polaris, Betelgeuse, Sirius. Little verses helped me find them in the sky. “Arc to Arcturus, spike to Spica,” was a favorite, and arc to Arcturus I did, gazing with passionate curiosity into sky-borne mysteries seemingly close enough to touch.

With passing years, trips into the country became less frequent, and adventures with my friends were measured in lumens. The bright lights of Broadway, the ambiance of San Francisco’s City Lights Bookstore — even Paris, the City of Light — drew us out of our midwestern darkness like a cloud of great, fluttering moths.

If circumstances forced us to settle for the lesser lights of Des Moines, Paducah, or Evansville, no matter. Our lives were arcing in new directions, and Arcturus was forgotten.

Forgotten, that is, until years in the African bush and a newly-acquired taste for offshore sailing pulled me back into darkness, teaching me its pleasures anew.

With no moon to obscure them, starlit paths cross land and sea. Night creatures scurry ahead of nearly invisible shadows, their paths lit by the flickering of uncounted distant stars. Ribbons of phosphorescent spume stream across the waves, scarcely distinguishable from the milky river flowing through the sky.

When unexpected and unwanted darkness falls — as it has in New York City, and Louisiana, and California, and Venezuela — the experience can be unnerving at best. At worst, it can make life seem unbearable, even as it gives free reign to the worst of human impulses.

But that other darkness, that more comfortable darkness, still enfolds the world like a favorite childhood blanket. Wrapped in nature’s darkness, safe and secure, we’re free to lift our eyes until our gaze arcs to Arcturus and beyond: toward galaxies beyond our sight, and a universe beyond our understanding.

The poet reminds us: Arcturus already is there, steadfast at our vision’s edge. We need only lift our eyes.

Edvard Munch ~ Summer Night on the Beach
I live near the sea. On these summer nights
Arcturus is already there, steadfast
in the southwest. Standing at the edge of the grass,
I am beginning to connect them as once they were connected,
the fixity of stars and unruly salt water,
by sailors with an avarice for landfall.
From where I stand the sea is just a rumor.
The stars are put out by our street lamp. Light
and water are well separated. And yet
the surviving of the sea-captain in his granddaughter
is increasingly apparent. (More than life was lost
when he drowned in the Bay of Biscay. I never saw him.)
As I turn to go in, the hills grow indistinct as his memory.
The coast is near and darkening. The stars are clearer,
but shadows of the grass and house are lapping at my feet
when I see the briar rose, no longer blooming,
but rigged in the twilight as sails used to be –
lacy and stiff together, a frigate of ivory.
~ Eavan Boland

Comments are welcome. For more information about poet Eavan Boland, please click here.

Bean Counting

As June edged into July, the summer increasingly seemed marked by “that sort” of day – disjointed, frustrating, compelling, anxiety-ridden, tiring and tiresome days.

There was plenty of heat in Houston and elsewhere being measured with thermometers. There was even more heat rising around the country that didn’t seem to fit into any known scale – heated words, over-heated emotions, simmering anger and pot-boiling rhetoric. While terrible thunderstorms – even an uncommonly strong derecho – raged across the Eastern Seaboard, there was enough political and social sturm und drang to make even the most avid Wagnerian happy.

More than once, while contemplating apocalyptic imagery from the Colorado wildfires and apocalyptic language from political commentators of every persuasion, I found myself thinking of a favorite poem written by Kay Ryan. Poet Laureate of the United States from 2008 to 2010, Ms. Ryan represented the U.S. at Poetry Parnassus, a festival held at Southbank Centre as part of London’s Cultural Olympiad. Continue reading