Thursday 23 August 2012

A short list for grief and joy and wonder

This has been a strange year. (Someone told me recently that 2012 was 'astrologically complicated'. If I believed in such things, I'd be tempted to agree.)

It's been year of love and loss and adjustment. It's been a year for being broken open (but not broken. Not broken.) And I have channelled much of that into, through, and back out of the words I write and the words I read.

A conversation with a new friend this week made me think about this harder. To articulate something - a thought, an idea, a feeling, a relationship -  is to give it a shape. Once it has a shape, it is something you can grasp. And when you can grasp it, you can do something with it. And that's where I want to be. 

The following are pieces of writing that have given shape to me over the year. They have moved me, and helped me understand things, and made me want to embrace the world more tightly. 

The first poem to sink into me and stay there was Charles Simic's The North:

The ancients knew the sorrows of exile:
If you weren't hanged, they'd pack you off
To the far ends of the Earth,
To go on grumbling, writing endless petitions
That would never reach the Emperor.
The North always the place of punishment:
Unforgiving cold, rags on your back,
And the company of a few sullen barbarians
At day's end when the wind parts the clouds
And the stars seem to be mocking.
Every few years a garbled message from home.
Memory paying a call in the wee hours:
A mother's face; the company of merry friends
At the long table in the garden;
Their wives baring their throats in the
afternoon heat…
"The sages suffered, too, exiled from truth,"
That's what you tell yourself…
Not many are meant to retrace their steps
And behold the splendors of the capital
Even more seductive than when you knew them.
The North always the place of punishment.
Deep snow. Blue-veined trees and bushes
Rising against the pink-colored morning sky…
So that briefly, in that one spell,
Your heartache hushes at the beauty of it.

(full review)

I start passing Tadeusz Rozewizc's Busy with Many Jobs on to friends. It's hard to explain why, except that it is a deft articulation of something I feel - that mortality isn't a threat, but an urge towards living:

Busy with very urgent jobs
I forgot
one also has
to die

I kept neglecting that duty
or performed it

as from tomorrow
things will be different

I'll start dying meticulously
wisely optimistically
without wasting time

The immunologist and poet Miroslav Holub told me that Officially the heart / is oblong, muscular, / and filled with longing. And he gave me Autumn:

And it is all over.

No more sweetpeas,
no more wide-eyed bunnies
dropping from the sky.

a reddish boniness
under the sun of hoarfrost,
a thievish fog,
an insipid solution of love,
and crowing.

But next year
larches will try
to make the land full of larches again
and larks will try
to make the land full of larks.

And thrushes will try
to make all the trees sing,
and goldfinches will try
to make all the grass golden,

and burying beetles
with their creaky love will try
to make all the corpses
rise from the dead,


Adam Zagajewski  grabbed me with Three Angels:

Suddenly three angels appeared
right here by the bakery on St. George Street.
Not another census bureau survey,
one tired man sighed.
No, the first angel said patiently,
we just wanted to see
what your lives have become,
the flavor of your days and why
your nights are marked by restlessness and fear.
That's right, fear, a lovely, dreamy-eyed
woman replied; but I know why.
The labors of the human mind have faltered.

They seek help and support
they can't find. Sir, just take a look
-- she called the angel "Sir"! --
at Wittgenstein. Our sages
and leaders are melancholy madmen
and know even less than us
ordinary people (but she wasn't

Then too, said one boy
who was learning to play the violin, evenings
are just an empty carton,
a casket minus mysteries,
while at dawn the cosmos seems as
parched and foreign as a TV screen.
And besides, those who love music for itself
are few and far between.

Others spoke up and their laments
surged into a swelling sonata of wrath.
If you gentlemen want to know the truth,
one tall student yelled -- he'd
just lost his mother -- we've had enough
of death and cruelty, persecution, disease,
and long spells of boredom still
as a serpent's eye. We've got too little earth
and too much fire. We don't know who we are.
We're lost in the forest, and black stars
move lazily above us as if
they were only our dream.

But still, the second angel mumbled shyly,
there's always a little joy, and even beauty
lies close at hand, beneath the bark
of every hour, in the quiet heart of concentration,
and another person hides in each of us --
universal, strong, invincible.
Wild roses sometimes hold the scent
of childhood, and on holidays young girls
go out walking just as they always have,
and there's something timeless
in the way they wind their scarves.
Memory lives in the ocean, in galloping blood,
in black, burnt stones, in poems,
and in every quiet conversation.
The world is the same as it always was,
full of shadows and anticipation.

He would have gone on talking, but the crowd
was growing larger and waves
of mute rage spread
until at last the envoys rose lightly
into the air, whence, growing distant,
they gently repeated: peace be unto you,
peace to the living, the dead, the unborn.
The third angel alone said nothing,
for that was the angel of long silence.

(This slays me: there's always a little joy, and even beauty / lies close at hand, beneath the bark / of every hour, in the quiet heart of concentration, / and another person hides in each of us -- universal, strong, invincible.)

Rebecca Lindenberg's Love, An Index undid me completely. I compared my experiences with her - found myself lacking, puzzled, totally understood. From The Girl with the Ink-Stained Teeth:

knows she's famous 
in a tiny, tragic way. 
She's not 
after all. 

Louise Erdrich's Jacklight was a tough read - she uses beauty to lure you in then pins you down so you have to listen to her. There is a widow sequence - I try not to linger. I cannot rip my eyes off The Strange People:

All night I am the doe, breathing 
his name in a frozen field,
the small mist of the word
drifting always before me.

And again he has heard it 
and I have gone burning 
to meet him, the jacklight 
fills my eyes with blue fire; 
the heart in my chest
explodes like a hot stone.

Then slung like a sack
in the back of his pickup,
I wipe the death scum
from my mouth, sit up laughing 
and shriek in my speeding grave.

Safely shut in the garage,
when he sharpens his knife
and thinks to have me, like that,
I come toward him,
a lean gray witch
through the bullets that enter and dissolve.

I sit in his house
drinking coffee till dawn
and leave as frost reddens on hubcaps,
crawling back into my shadowy body.
All day, asleep in clean grasses,
I dream of the one who could really wound me.

I almost entirely stopped reading novels or non-fiction. Poetry is the only thing that makes it through. But I have been back to C. S. Lewis's A Grief Observed - searing, honest, loving, and, of all things, exquisitely erotic:

I see I've described H. as being like a sword. That's true as far as it goes. But utterly inadequate by itself, and misleading. I ought to have balanced it. I ought to have said, 'But also like a garden. Like a nest of gardens, wall within wall, hedge within hedge, more secret, more full of fragrant and fertile life, the further you entered.'

It's not all tragic, of course. Being broken open to the world - it is miraculous, marvellous, magical, almost bewilderingly overwhelming at times. This is what Wislawa Szymborska's Allegro Ma Non Troppo captures:

Life, you're beautiful (I say)
you just couldn't get more fecund,
more befrogged or nightingaily,
more anthillful or sproutspouting.

I'm trying to court life's favor,
to get into its good graces,
to anticipate its whims.
I'm always the first to bow,

always there where it can see me
with my humble, reverent face,
soaring on the wings of rapture,
falling under waves of wonder.

Oh how grassy is this hopper,
how this berry ripely rasps.
I would never have conceived it
if I weren't conceived myself!

Life (I say) I've no idea
what I could compare you to.
No one else can make a pine cone
and then make the pine cone's clone.

I praise your inventiveness,
bounty, sweep, exactitude,
sense of order – gifts that border
on witchcraft and wizardry.

I just don't want to upset you,
tease or anger, vex or rile.
For millennia, I've been trying
to appease you with my smile.

I tug at life by its leaf hem:
will it stop for me, just once,
momentarily forgetting
to what end it runs and runs?

Likewise, James Schuyler anchored me back into the real world, even at his most oblique:


I do not always understand what you say.
Once, when you said, across, you meant along.
What is, is by its nature, on display.

Words' meanings count, aside from what they weigh:
poetry, like music, is not just song.
I do not always understand what you say.

You would hate, when with me, to meet by day
What at night you met and did not think wrong.
What is, is by its nature, on display.

I sense a heaviness in your light play,
a wish to stand out, admired, from the throng.
I do not always understand what you say.

I am as shy as you. Try as we may,
only by practice will our talks prolong.
What is, is by its nature, on display.

We talk together in a common way.
Art, like death, is brief: life and friendship long.
I do not always understand what you say.
What is, is by its nature, on display.

And then one day, Mark Leidner comes along, a total surprise. I hunt him down. He delights me more. I start stalking him on the internet. He favourites one of my fan-girl tweets. I blush.

The River

The woman told me the saddest thing I had ever heard. I told her I loved her because of what she had told me. Her expression soured. She warned me not to love her for her telling me that. She told me it was okay, and maybe even good, to love her – only not for that. I responded that I did not love her for that, exactly, and that she had misunderstood me. I admitted that why I loved her was related to what she had told me, yes, but only tangentially, and was that alright? She asked me to elaborate, so I told her that I loved her, not for the thing she had told me, but for the courage involved in telling someone something like it, something that sad, which seemed to me to be a great deal of courage – and I told her I also loved her, though far less than for the courage part, although plenty still, for the way in which she told it to me, which I explained had been, in all seriousness, eloquent and mesmerizing. She had a small build and at that point she laughed like a flower, wilting and blooming. Her nose was in the center. I decided to show her the river. I picked her up in my hands and carried her, crisscrossing back and down through the steep and elaborate cragwork of the slope of the riverbank. When my feet were finally in the water I looked at her and said, the river is deep, and fast, and it drowns many people, but I still love it. I still love the river, I told her. But I do not love it because it is deep, and fast, and drowns many people. I love it because it runs behind my house, and I have lived above it forever.

Another Simic poems suggests to me that living near the strained edges of experience may bring harder, stranger, more interesting things into your life than dwelling in the warm comfortable centre:


That's where No lives,
Happily ever after.

Its sky has no stars,
No morning or evening,
No earth under its feet.

It's happy because
It only has a word for them,
And the poor Yes
Has a place,

Has a kitchen and a window
To go along with the place,
And an onion
That makes him cry.

And it's his Ditty that I want to close with. Because it made me think, You can. You can wake up every day and put one foot in front of the other and take a deep breath, square your shoulders,  lift your face to the sky and let life in. 

Could you live in the middle of
nowhere Virginia
could you live as in the game
of tag

live as a bride of no one
the sister of algebra
could you love and remember
and remember only to forget
could you live as a dog without a master

and you do of course you do
with the river the wind and the evening star
your little insomnia their big insomnia
each night clenching your eyes hard
clenching them with a sigh

Could you live knowing nothing
of why and where and how
live as a balmy day in dead winter 
live as the kitchen radio
blaring all the sad old lyrics

and you do sweetheart you do


mike said...

You're amazing.

Anna Miles said...

Astounding post Courtney - inspiring. You could keep me in reading for years. Thanks!