Prufrock and Peaches

The peach orchard ~ May, 2019

Poor J. Alfred Prufrock. One of T.S. Eliot’s most memorable creations, he roams the streets and rooms of his poem — “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” — haunted by a hundred indecisions.

Sometimes distressed by the grand questions of life, he becomes equally paralyzed before the smaller decisions it requires, asking “Do I dare disturb the universe?” while remaining unsure how to part his hair.

In the midst of his dithering, he asks a question I’ve always found amusing: “Do I dare to eat a peach?” At the height of our peach season, filling my baskets at a local orchard and daring to eat a peach or two as I plucked, I pondered J. Alfred’s question, and tucked this answer in with the fruit.

 

To
dare to
pluck, to sift
through leafy boughs
in seach of summer’s
bounty; to taste what heat
sends, dripping-sweet, down chins and
elbowed branches; hearing orchards
sing of rain-drenched life, of growth, of joy ~
it’s here the answer ripens as it will.

 

Comments always are welcome. For the complete text of Eliot’s poem and the context for Prufrock’s question, click here.
For more information on the Etheree, a syllabic poem containing ten lines and a total of fifty-five syllables, please click here.

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

 

When Carl Linnaeus Meets T.S. Eliot

Texas bluebonnets (Lupinus texensis) on the Willow City Loop

I’ve always considered the phrase “flash of inspiration” to be mostly metaphorical, but it perfectly describes a recent experience. In the course of responding to my current post about Ferdinand Lindheimer on Lagniappe, Curt Mekemson said, “I find it appropriate and interesting that naturalists get to add their name to discoveries.”

In a flash, the phrase “the naming of plants” came to mind. It recalled T.S. Eliot’s wonderful poem, “The Naming of Cats.” In my response to his comment, I told Curt there was a parody demanding to be written, although I wasn’t certain Carl Linnaeus’s system of categorizing plants by genus and species could be contained in the form of a poem, and the fact that plant names are given in Latin only added to the challenge.

Nevertheless, the thought of having a little fun with binomial nomenclature — what botanists call those two-part names like Lupinus texensis — was appealing.  In fact, it was so appealing everything I’d been working on was set aside in favor of having a little pure fun.

If you’re not familiar with Eliot’s poem, you can hear a recording of him reading it here. If you already know “The Naming of Cats,” you’ll hear the echoes below. Whether Linnaeus would enjoy it, I can’t say. I’m sure that Eliot would, and I hope you do, too.

 

The naming of plants? It really does matter.
It isn’t correct to think all are the same.
You may think at first I’m indulging in patter,
but I tell you — a plant must have four different names!
First comes the name that tells us its genus —
Gaillardia, Solanum, Ilex or Phlox;
Clematis and Salvia,  Silphium, Quercus —
the Latin is easy, not hard as a rock.
There are fancier names if you think they sound sweeter,
some for the cactus and some for the canes —
Monarda, Justicia, or even Lantana
make lovely and sensible Latinate names.
And then, every plant needs a name more particular,
a name that’s specific and quite dignified —
else how could it keep all its stems perpendicular,
spread out its anthers, or blossom with pride?
For namings of this sort, I ‘ll give you fair dozens:
lyrata, drummondii, frutescens, and more —
crispus, limosa, luteola, texensis —
those names help describe what we’re all looking for.
Of course, there are names by which most people call plants,
like violet, hollyhock, iris, and thyme;
there’s nothing more common than sweet dandelions,
or peaches, or rhubarb for making our wine.
But above and beyond, there’s one name left over,
and that is the Name that you never will guess;
the Name that no researcher ever discovers —
which the plant itself knows, but will not confess.
When you notice a bloom in profound meditation,
its rays sweetly folded, or its leaves well-arrayed,
its mind is engaged in a rapt contemplation
of the seed of a thought of a thought of its Name:
its sturdy and windblown,
sunkissed and shadowed,
deep and firm-rooted most singular Name.

 

Comments always are welcome.

A Grace Period

(Click to enlarge)

Had T.S. Eliot lived in coastal Texas, he might have chosen August rather than April to be his cruelest month: bringing, as August does, a wasteland of over-heated concrete, limp vegetation, and silent birds.

Picking lethargically at their food, the birds show little more interest in the world around them than their increasingly silent, sighing human companions. Caught between memories of the delicate, blooming spring and desire for October’s cooling winds, spirits grow dull, insensate: failing to revive even when washed by overheated rain. Continue reading

After the Journey

“Magi” ~ by G.C. Myers

To set out under compulsion, to travel in ambiguity, to depend on little more than dreams and a star for guidance – such was the fate of the Magi.

Tradition tells us the names of those who sought the infant Jesus – Gaspar, Balthasar, and Melchior.  Tradition also describes the nature of their gifts, filled with symbolism and fit for any King, infant or otherwise – gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Matthew tells their story with perfect simplicity, although his narrative lacks the sort of detail that satisfies human curiosity. In his account, the Magi travel, seek, consult, find, and then, fearful of a king named Herod and his murderous intents, “depart by another way”.  Just as they catch our interest, the Magi are gone, disappearing over history’s horizon forever. Continue reading

Fading Phrases, Rising Words

The sky clears, a rising wind from the north sending a fog of celebration out to sea.  The moon herself rides high and fast between the scudding clouds.  This moon called Blue, not blue at all but white, whiter than any snow, shines brilliant and harsh, lighting the transition between old and new as one year gives way to the next.

Standing solitary and moonlit in these ephemeral hours, tangled in this fragile web of no-longer and not-yet, it’s possible to glimpse tokens of a truth hidden to hordes of thoughtless revelers in the street: this is the way of life. What has been passes away into that which was, even as the yet-to-be stirs toward vitality. Armies rise and nations fall. Children squall into existence while parents sigh into death. In the farthest reaches of the galaxies, stars explode with pulsing light while on our own shy, spinning globe rotting leaves and the stench of mud evoke a season’s final turn. Continue reading

Solstice Silence, Solstice Song

There’s no escaping the scent of gentle chaos wafting through these last days before Christmas. “I loves me some Christmas,” says the woman to her companion in the checkout line, squinting at her notebook . “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 are all with the woman. Even as I’ve pulled out angels and garlands, decorated trees, wrapped gifts, sent cards and done my own baking I’ve found myself thinking, “I could stand some peace and quiet.”

The quiet’s as important as the peace. The pressures of the Christmas to-do list are one thing, but the season can be noisy to the point of distraction. Grandma doesn’t go quietly when she gets run over by that reindeer, and hearing the Chipmunks’ version of Jingle Bell Rock piped through the produce aisle at full volume is more annoying than festive. While the carols and seasonal songs blare away, families squabble and impatient horns fill shopping mall parking lots with the honking of a thousand demented geese. The decible level of life rises perceptibly.

Even at night, the peace and quiet of hours meant for sleep is disturbed by the ebb and flow of incessant, internal questioning. “What have I forgotten?” “Who will be offended..?” “Can we afford..?” “Will there be time..?” If dawn brings nagging children and snappish adults, 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, stretching on to the Feast of the Epiphany, seem a horror. Who needs more Christmas when we already are exhausted and drained?

The Scrooges of the world, cynics and misanthropes alike, describe these seasonal excesses in terms that range from “pathetic” to “evil”. Obviously, they are neither. Gathering with family and friends, luxuriating in the beauty of worship and enjoying the exchange of gifts can be sheer delight. Most people find these Christmas pleasures to be well worth the time and energy they require. But as we anticipate our celebration, it’s worth pausing to remember we prepare in the context of a world far older than our customs and far larger than our plans. The world in which we celebrate Christmas travels an ages-old path and turns on an ageless axis with no regard for human intent and purpose. It is a hidden world, though imperfectly so. It can be searched out and surprised, and it can reveal itself in unexpected ways.

I experienced that hidden world one Christmas holiday in England. After a stopover in London I traveled on to Wiltshire, intending to celebrate Christmas at Salisbury Cathedral. Arriving without reservations, I discovered a wonderful inn where I came to enjoy long conversations with the innkeeper and his wife. They were cheerful sorts, bubbly and accomodating, just as keepers of inns should be. Best of all, they were full of practical advice to make my English sojourn perfect.

Discovering I hadn’t planned to make the trek to Stonehenge (“that pile of rocks in a pasture”, as another guest put it), they were aghast. “But you must go to Stonehenge!”, they implored. Laughing, I asked if Stonehenge wasn’t better visited in summer. Giving me a look that clearly translated, “Now see what this poor, benighted American is saying”, they replied that while the summer solstice celebrations are more publicized, the winter solstice has its own good qualities. “For on thing”, they said with only a hint of a smile, “in the dead of winter there are far fewer tourists to clog up the roads.”

On the slightly ironic basis of there being fewer tourists about, I agreed to make the trip with them. As we traveled, they unraveled strands of solstice lore. I knew the basics – that the winter solstice marks the shortest day and the longest night of the year, with the sun descending to its lowest point in the sky. What I didn’t know was that the sun’s noontime elevation appears to be the same for several days before and after the event. The word itself, “solstice”, comes from the Latin solstitium, a combination of “sun” (sol) and “a stoppage” (stitium). According to my guides, legend has it that at the very moment of solstice, it is not only the sun that stops. If you are in a silent place, with a quiet mind and a stilled heart, you can hear the earth pause and catch her breath as she waits for the sun to turn and move, beginning his ageless journey toward the spring.

Charmed by the legend and intrigued by the science, I’d finally become truly interested to explore the “pile of rocks in a pasture”. We arrived at Stonehenge not at the precise time of solstice, but on the day after. What crowds had gathered were gone. There were no ticket-takers, no vendors, no guides. There was only emptiness – a cold sun shining through high, thin clouds, cold gray rock and winter-singed grass dusted with snow. There was a wind that sighed, and a single bird, circling above the plain.

Moving away from my companions toward the stones, I found the silence so complete I could hear my heart beating in my ears. A sense of presence, profound and palpable, gripped my heart. Anxious, no longer certain of my solitude, I turned as if to confront an assailant. There was no one there. There were only the rocks, the sky and the hush of wind, singing across Salisbury plain.

Each year as darkness deepens, days grow shorter and the sun hastens his journey toward the solstice turn, I remember Salisbury Plain – the stones, the silence and the song. 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.

When the mystery of connectedness surprises us – in a snowstorm-emptied New York street or a grove of Redwoods shrouded in mist, at a baby’s crib or a parent’s grave, in an empty classroom or an overflowing church, near a dawn-touched shoreline or in the fading shadows of a suburban yard, its nature is unmistakable, and the poet’s words apply:

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, or 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 still the sun lowers and still comes the pause, and once again Solstice has arrived. If we are wise, we will find a bit of space, a little emptiness, some moments of silence in the midst of our celebrations to embrace its coming and its promise. If we dare to stop – preparing for ourselves a room built of those moments of solitude and silent attentiveness that so often elude us – then as surely as the sun stops, and the earth breathes, and the cold wind sings over the silent plain, we will sense the vertiginous joy which connects us to creation.

 

 

 
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