Poem for Ash Wednesday: Denise Levertov

As is my custom on these Christian holidays of significance to me (and others), I try to find a poem to share and reflect on that will resonate in some particular way with folks who share at least some of my beliefs, but that will also speak to people of other faiths, or no faith.  I don’t know if I always succeed, but I always find the trying worth the effort for me, at least.  I hope it works for you, as well.  Today is Ash Wednesday, a day for reflecting on a lot of things: the frailty of being human, and its weakness.  Human resolve, that somehow will push back against these things in search of some more significant destiny.  Our need, both collective and individual, for mercy, for kindness, for forgiveness and grace, if these terms are not too loaded with theology to speak to us all in our simple humanity.  One of the poets who speaks to all these things most successfully for me is Denise Levertov, who I found this morning I had not gone to in almost three years for the blog—today I’ll rectify that, observing Ash Wednesday (or “Wednesday”, for those of you who don’t care a fig for all this Lent business) with a poem called “The Servant-Girl at Emmaus (A Painting by Velasquez)”, from her collection The Stream & the Sapphire.  Since it is based, as the title suggests, on a work of art, I’ll share that image next to it here so that you can consider it as you consider the poem:

La mulata, by Diego Velasquez

La mulata, by Diego Velasquez

She listens, listens, holding
her breath. Surely that voice
was his—the one
who had looked at her, once, across the crowd,
as no one ever had looked?
Had seen her? Had spoken as if to her?

Surely those hands were his,
taking the platter of bread from hers just now?
Hands he’d laid on the dying and made them well?

Surely that face—?

The man they’d crucified for sedition and blasphemy.
The man whose body disappeared from its tomb.
The man it was rumored now some women had seen this morning, alive?

Those who had brought this stranger home to their table
don’t recognize yet with whom they sit.
But she in the kitchen, absently touching the winejug she’s to take in,
a young Black servant intently listening,

swings round and sees
the light around him
and is sure.

I won’t delve into the history of the painting, which you can read about on Wikipedia and other places, too, I’m sure.  Levertov clearly isn’t concerned with Velasquez, great as he is, but instead with what the painting allows us to glimpse.  The image and story come from the Gospel of Luke’s 24th chapter, although the story may also appear (without a lot of identifying detail) in the Gospel of Mark.  The basics are quite simple—after the death of Jesus and the discovery that his tomb was empty, two of his disciples (one gets a name, but it never appears again in the New Testament; the other remains anonymous to us) are walking down the road to a small town called Emmaus talking about all that’s happened.  They meet a stranger on the road who apparently doesn’t know about any of these events, and they fill him in.  He then suggests that all of this is in accord with prophecies from the Tanakh (or Old Testament), and amazes them with his deep knowledge of the Jewish Scriptures.  They talk a long time on the road, and then they invite him to dinner once Emmaus is reached: at some point during the meal (maybe the beginning, maybe not; scholars disagree on how to interpret certain phrases) they suddenly recognize the stranger as a resurrected Jesus, whereupon he vanishes.

It’s a pretty good story, truth be told, even if for you that’s all it is—some fiction about people who either never lived, or who, if they did, didn’t have this literal experience.  The two travelers, sorrowful but also perplexed.  One of them has a name that we don’t recognize; the other is nameless.  A third person joins them and, despite seeming to be unfamiliar with the details of their lived experiences, amazes them by putting together ideas and events they already knew about in a way that fascinates and intrigues them.  They react with gratitude, and are rewarded with a sudden (and shockingly brief) glimpse of a friend they thought was lost forever.  And then he was gone, again.  Into this little tale Levertov (by way of Velasquez) inserts the figure of this young black girl, who gets the drop on our two travelers—before they quite recognize the man in front of them (since, once they do, he will disappear), she sees out of the corner of her eye something that immediately clarifies all of this for her.

What’s here for all of us, I think, including people of any faith tradition (or none), is the recognition of that kind of Emmaus moment in our own lives.  We know the breathless moment when suddenly something we hadn’t looked for appears to us.  We feel in our bones what it’s like to have your lived experiences—for this girl, something in the voice or hands that calls to mind almost-forgotten memories—call you to focus on something others will overlook, and to have our rapt attention pay off with a sudden glimpse of something true and important.  I love those last three lines, the suddenness of her turn (which Velasquez only anticipates, rather than depicting) and the light falling into her eyes, and with it, knowledge.  Especially powerful, then, is Velasquez’s choice (which Levertov reinforces) of an ethnic minority, a young person, and a woman, to be the one who sees before these older men (we can’t say “white” since no native of Palestine then really fits that admittedly weird and arbitrary racial category from modern America, but of a different race than the girl, and theirs is the majority race in that part of the world).  Maybe it can serve as a reminder to all of us that Emmaus moments are not just ours to receive individually—that, to learn all we should, we need to be attentive to how other people’s experiences, especially those different from ours, especially those marginalized by our society, may open up truths for them that we need also.  Truths that we, once we possess them, will carry in our hearts forever, even from just that one brief glimpse.  I think the poem and the painting, together, hit that message home for me, and it’s one I’m grateful for no matter what Wednesday it is.

But to add just briefly for others who may share some of my faith experiences, and for whom Ash Wednesday is a special day of reflection, I’ll say that the Emmaus tale is a powerful one for Lent, I think.  I love the namelessness of the second disciple because I think that disciple is each of us, all of us—whoever he (or she) may have been on the road that day.  I love the metaphor for Lent as a road—one we walk for a long ways while pondering the stories written in the New Testament, sharing with each other insights we may have—and one that may end in a startling and meaningful glimpse of the divine during the Triduum of Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Vigil.  And so, for that reason, all I said in the last paragraph is magnified—the important of recognizing how people not like me, especially the marginalized and the ignored in my community, may have much more to draw on when they look for the form of the one who was despised and mistreated, rejected by almost all who knew him, in the end, and put to ignominious death as a hated criminal.  They may know much more than I do about his hands and voice, may see them much more alive and at work in the community around me, and may feel the warmth of light in places that are still dark to me.  Lent is a season for listening, then, at least for me—to Levertov today, and hopefully to the voices of many other people in the 40 days (plus Sundays) between now and the ringing of the Easter bells.  Perhaps it will be for you, as well.

Poetry Friday: Casey at the Bat

It may seem that the middle of winter is a strange time to tackle a poem about the national pastime, since baseball’s season is still weeks away (pitchers and catchers have yet even to report to spring training), but if you’re someone like me—a guy who’s been a Seahawks fan so long he still has a little slip of paper tucked away in a keepsake box with Chuck Knox‘s signature on it—the thrilling and then gut-punch agonizing finish to this year’s Super Bowl instantly brought to mind Ernest Lawrence Thayer‘s classic poem about anticipation, arrogance, talent and disappointment.  You may be most familiar with it as the narration to a Disney cartoon, and indeed, there’s a side of the poem that is cartoonish.  But Martin Gardner, who wrote essays on American literature for the better part of a century, championed the poem for years as “America’s epic poem”, a verse that is titanic and powerful in what it says about who we are, and viewed especially through the lens of the emotions I went through last Sunday, I’m coming around to the notion that Gardner was right.  Without further ado, here’s the whole text of Ernest Thayer’s “Casey at the Bat”:

The outlook wasn’t brilliant for the Mudville nine that day:
The score stood four to two, with but one inning more to play,
And then when Cooney died at first, and Barrows did the same,
A pall-like silence fell upon the patrons of the game.

A straggling few got up to go in deep despair. The rest
Clung to the hope which springs eternal in the human breast;
They thought, “If only Casey could but get a whack at that—
We’d put up even money now, with Casey at the bat.”

But Flynn preceded Casey, as did also Jimmy Blake,
And the former was a hoodoo, while the latter was a cake;
So upon that stricken multitude grim melancholy sat,
For there seemed but little chance of Casey getting to the bat.

But Flynn let drive a single, to the wonderment of all,
And Blake, the much despisèd, tore the cover off the ball;
And when the dust had lifted, and men saw what had occurred,
There was Jimmy safe at second and Flynn a-hugging third.

Then from five thousand throats and more there rose a lusty yell;
It rumbled through the valley, it rattled in the dell;
It pounded on the mountain and recoiled upon the flat,
For Casey, mighty Casey, was advancing to the bat.

There was ease in Casey’s manner as he stepped into his place;
There was pride in Casey’s bearing and a smile lit Casey’s face.
And when, responding to the cheers, he lightly doffed his hat,
No stranger in the crowd could doubt ‘twas Casey at the bat.

Ten thousand eyes were on him as he rubbed his hands with dirt;
Five thousand tongues applauded when he wiped them on his shirt;
Then while the writhing pitcher ground the ball into his hip,
Defiance flashed in Casey’s eye, a sneer curled Casey’s lip.

And now the leather-covered sphere came hurtling through the air,
And Casey stood a-watching it in haughty grandeur there.
Close by the sturdy batsman the ball unheeded sped—
“That ain’t my style,” said Casey. “Strike one!” the umpire said.

From the benches, black with people, there went up a muffled roar,
Like the beating of the storm-waves on a stern and distant shore;
“Kill him! Kill the umpire!” shouted someone on the stand;
And it’s likely they’d have killed him had not Casey raised his hand.

With a smile of Christian charity great Casey’s visage shone;
He stilled the rising tumult; he bade the game go on;
He signaled to the pitcher, and once more the dun sphere flew;
But Casey still ignored it and the umpire said, “Strike two!”

“Fraud!” cried the maddened thousands, and echo answered “Fraud!”
But one scornful look from Casey and the audience was awed.
They saw his face grow stern and cold, they saw his muscles strain,
And they knew that Casey wouldn’t let that ball go by again.

The sneer is gone from Casey’s lip, his teeth are clenched in hate,
He pounds with cruel violence his bat upon the plate;
And now the pitcher holds the ball, and now he lets it go,
And now the air is shattered by the force of Casey’s blow.

Oh, somewhere in this favoured land the sun is shining bright,
The band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light;
And somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout,
But there is no joy in Mudville—mighty Casey has struck out.

Thayer presents us with a mesmerizing little poem: one that, yes, has gotten quirkier as the years pass and some of the slang becomes increasingly comical (I love the narrator’s calm assertion that Flynn and Blake, Mudville’s lesser lights, are, respectively, a “hoodoo” and a “cake”).  It can seem almost like a joke, presenting us with a setup, the gradual build of tension, and then the little shock of laughter as the outcome we expect—the triumph of “mighty Casey”—is pulled out from under us.  But we don’t really laugh at Casey, do we?  He’s not a clown; he’s a tragic hero.

Or at least that’s what I’d like you to try to bring to this poem.  Walk through it with me—it has its weaknesses (Thayer was no great poet, and even he came to look disapprovingly at this piece as he aged), but I think in spite of his inexperience and the poem’s frequently silly tone, you’ll see there’s a grandeur to the poem that explains why it endures.  Let’s start with the rhythm—seven metrical feet per line, iambs—which may feel familiar if you read it out loud and really listen to the rise and fall.  It’s the same rhythm Emily Dickinson uses in most of her famous pieces—“Some keep the Sabbath going to church”, etc.—although she breaks the lines in two (four feet and three).  She almost certainly borrows the rhythm, consciously or unconsciously, from the rhythms of the hymns sung in the New England churches she would have grown up attending (however she chose to keep the Sabbath once she was grown).  There’s a stateliness to the sound: it doesn’t quite sound funny to us, aloud.  It’s tapping into something about English and the way we’re accustomed to hearing it, I think: the meter says “these are thoughts to dwell on”.  Thayer chose it well.

Then the setup: I think it’s worth noting that Casey doesn’t lose Mudville a game it has in the bag.  Mudville’s played 8 of 9 innings and is in a real bind.  They haven’t been fast enough, strong enough, precise enough.  Any baseball fan will tell you that down two heading into the ninth inning is heartbreak territory, most of the time: close enough to believe in the possibility of a win, but almost guaranteed to end with a lazy pop-up or a rage-inducing called third strike.  And then, when Cooney and Barrows make quick work of themselves, well, most fans would be packing up their peanuts and crackerjack, if not physically heading for the exits.  But then something wonderful happens.

It’s too easy to see the end of the poem as all that counts, I think, but there are these little miracles in the middle of it, and plucky Flynn and doughty little Jimmy Blake are the two gems—they give Mudville all it could have asked.  Whatever failures lay behind them when they came to the plate—and there must have been some, to inspire the foul feelings in the stands as they are announced—each of them has a moment to shine, and they seize it.  They take what could have been an ignominious loss, 4-2 finishing with a routine ground ball to short, and turn it into a shout of delight, a thrill of expectation, a dawning realization that, no matter how it ends, this will be a game we go home remembering.  Sport has that instant memory-making quality, for those who love it: the chance to know just a moment in advance you’ll have this image clear in your mind all your life, and to revel in that knowledge (as much as it terrifies you).

I love those two fellows for their contributions, but of course, this is a poem about Casey and to him our eyes must go.  After Blake’s astonishing double puts the tying run in scoring position, Thayer gets a little Old Testament in his language—the echo of the spectators goes out and makes a clamor in the natural world like something out of Isaiah or Ezekiel.  Casey is almost apocalyptic as he steps forward, and rightly so, since in the lives of those five thousand standing there, it feels at least a tiny bit like the world might end if he can’t manage to knock in the runs.  This is hyperbole.  All sporting language is, and fans know it: we are watching fiction.  But it doesn’t diminish the way those real feelings well up, unasked for, in our minds.

What makes Casey tragic, and American, to me is his unconquerable confidence.  He is the perfect image of the superstar, a vision that haunts all our society’s best and worst moments.  We prefer our leaders like this, whether quarterbacks, captains of industry, or even presidents: we like them unruffled by doubt, untroubled by the very real and slim odds they may face in a given situation.  There’s something reassuring about that confidence, even if we could never find it in ourselves (maybe especially so).  Casey is easy, light-hearted—he tips his cap as though out for a stroll through the park.  He saves his sneers for the opposing pitcher, but even then, he really is very relaxed about the encounter, at least at first.  He’s too good to swing at a less than perfect pitch, and really we sense he’s saving himself for the perfect moment, as though his legend would be diminished by a first-pitch single into right field.  He wants the 0-2 count so desperately that he might as well have laid down and watched the first two pitches go by while doing a crossword puzzle.  He steps in to save the umpire, and when the crowd erupts in anger after the second strike, it’s to them he darts a look of scorn—even they, the gang in his corner, shouting his name, praying to Heaven for one swing of his bat, they are really beneath him in that moment.  He gradually seizes control of the whole event: you’ll notice, he signals to the pitcher for the second pitch, as though it was foreordained, as though Casey is writing the script and even the opposition must play along.

What, then, do we make of a script that ends in the way it does?  There’s sudden hate and violence inside Casey as he waits for the third pitch, but who is it for?  Even though, situationally, it seems obvious it should be the enemy pitcher, it can’t really be, can it?  He’s more or less sent engraved invitations to have the pitcher throw two by him.  And who could hate Flynn or Blake, or even his other teammates who’d let him down—baseball is certainly a team sport, and without the efforts of the others, Casey could never have gotten into this position.  Despite that scornful look, I’ll go ahead and even clear the audience of the charge.  Who’s left to hate, then?  Where does the violence go?

Casey reminds me in this moment of Captain Ahab, the one-legged monomaniac who seizes Moby-Dick out of the hands of its so-called narrator, Ishmael. At one point in that novel, we are told that Ahab “piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.” There’s something that elemental about Casey, in that moment, and this is why the poem for me is large and intimidatingly wonderful. Casey’s anger reaches beyond the game he is playing and the moment he is responding to. This is the anger that anyone with talent and opportunity has to stare down—the realization that to be good at anything means to dare failure, and that to be great demands putting ourselves in positions where the only possible failures will be catastrophic ones. He might be angry on some level that there is such a game as baseball and that he was born to be good at it—angry at the inescapability of error and loss, because even if he launches this pitch into the next county, a day will come when he swings and misses, and it will look like all the others. Casey’s monstrous third strike has the power to haunt us because it’s not a particular failure. It’s the failure that awaits us all at least a few times in our lives. But it’s the kind of failure that can only come to us when we’ve been good enough at something to be put in that position. Cooney and Barrows, the first two outs of the inning, will not see the spectre of those outs in their sleep all their lives. No one will write “Cooney at the Bat” about his unfortunate line out to the third baseman as the leadoff batter in the 9th.  This is the kind of loss that can only come to us in a Casey moment in our lives.

I called this a tragedy, an epic poem, and it really is both of those things, because it ends in darkness and sorrow, like Priam cradling his son’s body in his arms as he returns to the gates of Troy.  That may seem like I’m putting too much stock in something that’s a game—just a game.  But it doesn’t feel that way to anyone involved, and as I’ve been suggesting above, it’s because the game allows us to confront something larger and truer about our real lives, where the strikeouts and goal-line interceptions and missed free throws won’t be quite as easy to spot, but where the prospect of victory can be as sweet, and the impact of failure just as immediate.  Thayer strikes just the right note, I think.  No failure, not even one as huge as Casey’s, which looms over the poem’s final stanza, can douse the sun, end happiness or music, halt the progression of time as it draws us forward into new challenges and prepares us for new wins and losses.  But before we move on we have to mourn, even something as silly and inconsequential as a swinging third strike.  The Mudville nine will play again—Casey will probably bat hundreds, even thousands more times in a long and successful career ahead of him.  None of that will erase that perfect afternoon, the unexpected wonder of the two-out rally, the tension tight as a piano wire as Casey prepares all for his glorious apotheosis, and then the sudden end to all.

Maybe you don’t see any of this in what seems to you an outdated and really very silly baseball poem.  I’ll acknowledge there’s a case to be made on that side of the verse.  But I expect more than a few of you know what I’m talking about.  Seahawks fans (and before them Packers fans, and Ducks fans, and Royals fans, etc.) have been hearing the usual refrains—you have to be pretty great to finish that close to the top, you have to be pretty talented to be right there with a chance to win it all, etc.  We know how all those words really feel; we know how it felt in the Mudville stands that day, standing there wearing a replica Casey jersey and watching his face fall as the umpire called out the third strike and raised his fist.  Poetry, if it is to speak to the whole of the human condition, has to go there too—to take the silliness of our immersion in a sport and capture what is also grand and noble and terribly sad about the moments sport brings.  For me, Thayer goes there with Casey, and I’m glad he did.

Poetry Friday: Miller Williams and the Sestina

I embarked on a consideration of the poetry of the Inland Northwest last time out, but, as often occurs here on Poetry Fridays, events have distracted me and taken me somewhere else this week.  I saw somewhere that Miller Williams had died.  Now, most of you might not be familiar with Miller Williams—he’s a noted but not pop-culture famous American poet of the late 20th Century, who’s probably most well-known, in all honesty, for being father to an award-winning singer/songwriter, Lucinda Williams.  His work touched many, though, and brought him high enough in the esteem of the right ears and eyes that he was asked to write and recite a poem for the second inauguration of President Bill Clinton, in 1997.  Miller was a clear-thinking and tough-speaking poet, often, and according to the Poetry Foundation’s bio of him, he always felt that the best praise he ever got was “a critic who wrote that ‘Miller Williams is the Hank Williams of American poetry. While his poetry is taught at Princeton and Harvard, it’s read and understood by squirrel hunters and taxi drivers.’” I think that’s fair.

The reason I knew and loved Miller’s work really centered around one particular poem of his, “The Shrinking Lonesome Sestina”. The reason for it is that, each December and January of my teaching career, I taught a mini-unit on poetry. Some of the all-time classics, some poems by friends of mine, some stuff I suspected most of the sophomores wouldn’t get and some stuff I dearly hoped most, if not all, of them would. One of the things I wanted to show them was the dazzling array of poetic forms, and the most fiendishly challenging and clockwork-clever of them is the sestina. It’s a tricky form to even understand—it abandons meter, and focuses on a small set of six words, which dance along the right margin of the poem like it’s the Virginia Reel, spinning, changing partners, always there but never in the same place. You can follow the link a couple sentences back to the Wikipedia entry explaining the exact pattern—how each of the six line stanzas uses the same six words to end each line, but how no word is ever at the end of the same line twice (that is, the word that ends the first line of the first stanza will end the second line of the second stanza and the fourth line of the third stanza, and so on for each of these six special sestina words). Now, because a sestina has to keep coming back to the same six words, most sestinas end up feeling a little silly. They can never move on from the topic at hand, and by the fourth or fifth stanza it often can feel like the poet has said all they have to say, leaving us irritated and bored. A neat device, you may think—catchy at first, but ultimately more a set of rules that prevent you from writing a decent poem than enabling you to.

But not Miller Williams. He had the genius notion that the sestina is an engine of great emotional power, structured in such a way that, in the hands of an artist and a passionate human being, can punch us in the heart and the head at just the right moment, and leave us wiser. At least that’s what I think. Because every year, no matter what else won the acclaim of each crew of sophomores, I could always count on them falling just a little bit in love with Miller Williams, and “The Shrinking Lonesome Sestina”:

Somewhere in everyone’s head something points toward home,
a dashboard’s floating compass, turning all the time
to keep from turning. It doesn’t matter how we come
to be wherever we are, someplace where nothing goes
the way it went once, where nothing holds fast
to where it belongs, or what you’ve risen or fallen to.

What the bubble always points to,
whether we notice it or not, is home.
It may be true that if you move fast
everything fades away, that given time
and noise enough, every memory goes
into the blackness, and if new ones come—

small, mole-like memories that come
to live in the furry dark—they, too,
curl up and die. But Carol goes
to high school now. John works at home
what days he can to spend some time
with Sue and the kids. He drives too fast.

Ellen won’t eat her breakfast.
Your sister was going to come
but didn’t have the time.
Some mornings at one or two
or three I want you home
a lot, but then it goes.

It all goes.
Hold on fast
to thoughts of home
when they come.
They’re going to
less with time.

Time
goes
too
fast.
Come
home.

Forgive me that. One time it wasn’t fast.
A myth goes that when the years come
then you will, too. Me, I’ll still be home.

That damn sixth stanza. It makes me cry every time. I don’t think I have to tell you why or how this works. It will move each of us in different ways, and show us different sides of love and of loss. I just wanted you to know it existed, and that there existed, too, a man named Miller Williams who wrote something that will live far beyond his mortal body. I bless him and these words of his.

Poetry Friday: Sherman Alexie

It’s time to explore the poetry of my new home—much as I went to Carl Sandburg to see Chicago through a poet’s eyes, I must find some Inland Northwest poets to help me understand this land.  And so, where else to start but with a son of the people whose land this is, who have possessed and been possessed by it for many centuries, long before my great-grandfather homesteaded here or my car rolled up with boxes in the back to make a home.  If you know Sherman Alexie, you know what we’re probably about to dive into.  And if you don’t know Sherman, a native man from the Spokane/Coeur d’Alene tribe, born on the Spokane Indian Reservation at Wellpinit, well, buckle up.  Whatever else it may be, ahead of us we can certainly expect to be confronted by truth.  From his collection, The Summer of Black Widows, this is “The Powwow at the End of the World”:

I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall
after an Indian woman puts her shoulder to the Grand Coulee Dam
and topples it. I am told by many of you that I must forgive
and so I shall after the floodwaters burst each successive dam
downriver from the Grand Coulee. I am told by many of you
that I must forgive and so I shall after the floodwaters find
their way to the mouth of the Columbia River as it enters the Pacific
and causes all of it to rise. I am told by many of you that I must forgive
and so I shall after the first drop of floodwater is swallowed by that salmon
waiting in the Pacific. I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall
after that salmon swims upstream, through the mouth of the Columbia
and then past the flooded cities, broken dams and abandoned reactors
of Hanford. I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall
after that salmon swims through the mouth of the Spokane River
as it meets the Columbia, then upstream, until it arrives
in the shallows of a secret bay on the reservation where I wait alone.
I am told by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall after
that salmon leaps into the night air above the water, throws
a lightning bolt at the brush near my feet, and starts the fire
which will lead all of the lost Indians home. I am told
by many of you that I must forgive and so I shall
after we Indians have gathered around the fire with that salmon
who has three stories it must tell before sunrise: one story will teach us
how to pray; another story will make us laugh for hours;
the third story will give us reason to dance. I am told by many
of you that I must forgive and so I shall when I am dancing
with my tribe during the powwow at the end of the world.

Sweet, terrible fire.  And words I need to hear.  There is something reminiscent here of many great poems I’ve read, including some I’ve discussed here—Dylan Thomas’s “A Refusal to Mourn the Death, by Fire, of a Child in London” occurs to me, and Langston Hughes’s “Let America be America Again“—but of course it is also entirely its own, hot with the passion that has boiled in him all his years.  As challenging as it can be to confront, it’s also important to face his relentless demands that forgiveness not be cheap, that injustice be met not with platitudes but with redress and righteousness, that the only way to do good is to undo evil.  The imagery is powerful for me because it pairs the very tangible and real—the solidity of the dam at Grand Coulee, the shattered reactors at a broken Hanford—with the fantastic and the mythical—an Indian woman (and there is something deeply powerful, I think, in his insisting that it be a woman) titanic enough that the weight of her shoulder can shatter acres of concrete, a salmon charged with lightning who calls the tribes home for the dance that ends time.  I find that I encounter these juxtapositions often in the work of Native American writers—I think culturally (at least in many tribes) they are better able to see the unreal through the lens of the real, especially seeing something numinous and immanent in the natural world around them.

There is something communal about his anger, the feeling that a whole community, a whole nation, must be restored by this amazing chain of events.  But there is also something so personal—the salmon must come to him, who waits alone in a secret place.  He alone will see the lightning bolt which falls at his feet and no one else’s—when the lost ones come home, they will come to him.  And for me that only enhances the power of the piece—this is a lament in broad strokes for what the Spokane people lost and deserve to have restored to them, but it is grounded in the very personal accounting Sherman feels of what the broken tribe costs him, and of what America owes him personally to make this right.  I enjoy, too, that the piece ultimately dwells on the elation of reunion, the exuberance of dance and ancient stories—ultimately what will satisfy this outcry is not the scent of burning towns or the vision of oppressors brought low.  It’s not about revenge in the end for him: it’s about what will be restored, not about what will be destroyed.

It would be easy to tune him out, I suppose—to say that this is all big talk but in the end not very realistic.  But I think we have to grapple with the enormity of what Sherman wants us to see, whether or not we really think we could do all he demands, breaking apart the structures of American society in his people’s valleys and plateaus and leaving them to dance.  He recognizes this is apocalypse—that the justice he is demanding can only be depicted in the context of a final day, of the judgment and conclusion of this living, standing at the threshold of what will follow.  It doesn’t mean his pain is imaginary, nor that we can pretend that justice is unimportant until some last call where we can hurriedly set things right before we are called to account.  The rhythms of his verse surge up against us again and again like waves, like salmon who will not be denied the river no matter how the falls rage them backwards.  They will swim until they are victorious or perish in the attempt.  I can feel that strain in his verse, and that determination.  I’m glad I’m having to wrestle with it, what it means and what it will mean in the future—and especially what I may have to do about it.  Poetry should unsettle us, and this poem certainly unsettles me, even as it introduces me to a home it is not ready to welcome me to.  I am grateful for that, and for Sherman, tonight.

Poetry Friday: In memory of grandparents

It’s time to dust off the old blog, begin anew the consideration of literature, America, and how those two massive entities tug me in their gravitational fields as I encounter them.  I’m settled in enough at my new university to feel I can begin reading Upton Sinclair again, and start talking poetry here on Fridays again.  So consider this the blog’s sixth or seventh rebirth—hopefully with some staying power.  Today, though, I won’t be picking out some great poet of days gone by, and if you come here for something more polished today, you might want to look elsewhere on the Internet for a great poet.  This is one more personal Friday, one more chance for me to impose a little of my own verse on you, and perhaps you’ll enjoy it, or at least it will give you something to think about.  Saturday is my grandmother’s memorial service, and we’ll be commemorating both her and her husband, my grandfather, who died several years ago, before I moved to Chicago, and never had a formal service.  Today we drive across the mountains to be able to join the family for the occasion.  Grandma’s loss is still too recent for me to have set down any thoughts about it in verse form—I don’t know if I ever will, but if I do, surely they’ll make their way here someday.  But I do have the poem that saying goodbye to Grandpa Olander brought out of me, several months after his passing.  So I offer it today as my meditation on loss and love, on Grandpa and Grandma, on the world as it is and the world as it will be—as always, with my own work, I won’t comment in the post itself, but I’m happy to talk about it in comments if anyone cares to do so.  This is “Penn Cove Thanksgiving”, by James Rosenzweig:

The Thanksgiving after my grandfather dies,
my wife and I drive to his cabin.
A crisp blanket of snow surrounds us
on the drive up—
hems us in with its white glory,
but the roads are not icy.
We have an easy journey.

The last stretch of road is familiar to us—
we walked it arm in arm, once,
a decade ago,
the night we first saw that
two friends were going to fall in love,
at last.

That was a mild May evening.
It is full of frost air now.
The woods are ominous.
The world is going into the dark
and will not return again.
Not the same world.

We are slowly unpacking the car,
preparing to trudge our way to the front door,
when she stops.

“Look,” she says, and points out
at the deck illuminated by our headlights.
We walk forward together,
our eyes aimed downward
as she shows me the tracks left in the snow.
Unfamiliar small footprints—
they belong to a creature neither of us can name,
so we follow them, our breath swirling around
and behind us in visible clouds.

On the deck the tracks swirl and loop
in chaotic patterns, until a single trail
of prints leads away westward
and stops.
“A bird”, we both say,
but we remain motionless for a moment.

We are standing in a place
where something living broke free from the earth
into the open sky,
or else in a place where,
unimaginably,
a life traded the unbounded expanse of the air
to walk where we do,
leaving strange prints on the frozen earth,
intersecting itself with us for reasons we cannot guess.

We return to our bags and boxes,
we pack ourselves into the cabin and sleep.
The next morning we watch the prints on the melting snow
as they darken, soften, and vanish.

It is Thanksgiving morning.
We will be full today.

Poetry Friday: Albany Park

I know it’s been awhile, folks, but I’ll try to make up for it today with something more personal.  I’ve been packing and organizing, since (as I alluded to in my last post) we are leaving Chicago, as I take on a position as a tenure-track Education Librarian at Eastern Washington University in Cheney.  This of course has a major impact in my life—leaving Chicago and the friends we’ve made here, learning the ways of a new institution and a new city, all the chaos that comes with a cross-country move (in December, no less)—and I’m approaching it with excitement, curiosity, anxiety, and at least a little melancholy as I start my farewells to all I’ve loved about my years in this city.  In a few weeks it’ll all settle down and I hope to be back to business here, but for now this post is me planting a little flag as both a jumping-off point for all that’s about to be new, and as a banner waving in the winds of the place I will always look back to with a smile.  The city that gave me my first professional experience as a librarian, and (for the rest of her life) the city my daughter will name when asked where she was born.

So for Poetry Friday today, I offer not one of the works of the great poets of the past, but rather this humble verse from yours truly—something I’ve tinkered with for a couple of years now (and truthfully have never really felt finished with).  An ode to my neighborhood and my library, and one of the songs of these days in my life.  I won’t comment after it in the post, but you’re more than welcome to comment to if you have anything to say (or ask) about it.  All my best to all of you this wintry afternoon: This is James Rosenzweig’s

“Walking Home from the Library on a Winter Evening;

or,

Albany Park, I thought about writing you a love-letter, but I decided our friendship is too important for me to risk it”

One scarf for your neck;
a second protects your face.
Your eyes go naked.

The robing begins as you listen in on Andy
and the man with the hat full of questions,
who’s been a student
of most of his life
for most of his life,
and whose goatee grin is the metronome
of the afternoon reference desk.
His gratitude twinkles in his eyes.
He mixes his questions with stories about jam sessions
from the 1970s: the jazz that fills his imagination.

As the gloves come on, you talk with Andy about the weather
in Mordor
as he’s diving into Tolkien for the first time
and hearing his progress report lets you take the journey
vicariously, as though remembering were reading.
You discuss whether your 12 year old nephew
is too young for The Hobbit,
and wonder why it’s so hard to decide.

Now your mountain coat,
veteran of a dozen snows,
doing lowland duty.

The door swings behind you: you walk into white.
The rattle of the university plow echoes off brick walls
and half-buried public art.
The remnants of last Wednesday’s storm
lie beneath this fresh fall
like cats asleep under the blankets.
The flakes sting your eyes when you look east;
your second scarf comes undone.
You accept your helplessness.

The cars on St. Louis have churned the snow,
now slightly yellow, powdered in texture
like corn masa flour.
An elderly Hasid passes you on his way to shul,
his black hat wrapped in Saran to keep dry:
Shabbat is descending.

Kimball Avenue:
two boys shovel the sidewalk
with their grandfather.

You can see the pride behind Abuelito’s stern eyes,
his pleasure at their love of labor,
his commitment to have his 30 feet of pavement
the cleanest in Albany Park.
On Foster, you see a child with a shovel,
utterly alone,
slowly clearing the whole block in front of his apartment,
and wonder if somewhere above, behind a parted curtain,
another grandfather looks down.

North Park‘s campus security drive around
in golf carts that handle the snow
exactly as well as they are designed to:
elephants in a wetland,
children spun from a merry-go-round.
The tower of Old Main is postcard-perfect
as it foregrounds the storm.

Kedzie Avenue:
immigrants of every race
wait for the same bus.

You look down as you cross the bridge:
the Chicago River is crowded with drifts,
swirling in big, slow eddies
like albino starfish at sea.
The snow fills with water, mottling like clouds,
clinging at both banks against
a current that will take it south.

With every step you become less a poet
and more a poem,
your feet beating out a meter no one else can scan,
the images you see are less around you
than they are in you, filling you up
before you can trap them in words.

Where Albany meets Ainslie
you see the crisp edges of a snow-blown sidewalk –
the fingerprints of José, whose war on ice is absolute.
As the crunch of footfalls is replaced
by the slap of pavement, you slip off one glove
to unlock the gate and check your mail:
then the dash across the empty courtyard.

As key turns, a sound –
her voice welcomes you to the
rooms she makes a home.

Poetry Friday: Armistice Day

It has been another delay here at Following Pulitzer—apologies to all of you who wish I would be more consistent (and thanks for your continued interest).  As it happens, I think a transition is coming that may free up more time for me to read and to write—a job change that will mean another cross-country move like the one I blogged through in 2011—but I’ll say more about that another day.  Today is a day about other people, and not me.

I call it Armistice Day in the title intentionally, because sometimes I think we are too quick to forget today’s origins.  It began less as a holiday to honor those who serve their country (great as that sacrifice often is, and humbling as it can be to the vast majority of us who do not serve), and more specifically as a holiday to honor the day the guns fell silent; the day a world, at long last, chose peace.  It is a somber day in every country scarred by World War I except ours—a day for wreaths laid at cenotaphs and salutes to absent comrades, a day for meditative silence and serious consideration of the toll that war exacts from all who touch it.  Here, I think we are often so caught up in the desire to celebrate veterans that we end up celebrating the trappings of war, thundering cannons and soaring jet engines, the flash of brightly shining medals and gun barrels as men and women in dress uniform march out at halftime or before the anthem.  It makes me uneasy.  As much as I honor those who serve, and know that there have been dark moments in the world’s history where, without that service, much that is good would have been lost… it is hard to see all that pomp and wonder if it dulls us to the cost of war.  Certainly my generation easily remembers how blindly and foolishly we were led into conflict—a conflict that was easy for many to support because our families would not supply the lives it took to do whatever it was we did in the Middle East.  Flags and salutes once a year (or twice, really, with Memorial Day) feels like cheap grace to me—an annual payment that costs people like me very little, much less than it would cost us to face the reality of the sacrifices we have demanded, and often unwisely.  Much less than it would cost us to find a way of diminishing the chances that any young person will have to make those sacrifices next year, next decade, and beyond.

The real costs, of course, are borne by those who do not return from battle, and those who love them.  Today is their day, and if a flag or a salute eases their burden, I will hoist the standard and stand at attention for as long as I am asked.  I know what I believe, and what I feel obligated to do—that’s why I always say what I do, each November 11.  But it is important to remember that today is not about me.  Today is theirs, and will ever be.  For them, I offer Laurence Binyon‘s ode, “For the Fallen”:

With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.

Solemn the drums thrill: Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres.
There is a music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.

They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted:
They fell with their faces to the foe.

They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables at home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.

But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;

As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain;
As the stars are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end they remain.