Poetry Friday: Into the Glow

Apologies for the absence last week—I was in Massachusetts.  The trip was excellent, and will spark at least one post here, I think, if not more.  But for now, it’s back to one of the things I love about the blog: sharing a poem I’m increasingly fascinated with (and hopefully introducing a few people to a poet I think the world needs to know better).  This time, we return to the poetry of Randall Templin, a gifted friend of mine whose work always makes me think.  The poem this evening is titled “Into the Glow”:

On these slow nights of childhood
the world is very short.
All its ends are close by.
There are no vast oceans and continents,
only outside in the night,
and my mother is not home.

The lamp by the windows
makes mirrors,
eyes turned in on the safety of
the heat vents blowing in
the glow
and the games my father plays with us.

But all ends are close;
the world is very
young and wild,
short.
Apocalypse is riding on the second hand

on these stretched nights
when the sky huddles so low
and the branches just outside
the mirrors blow from
one world’s end to the other.

On my pillow
I make worlds without my mother.
I rise to my knees
with each riding of the second hand.
Tangled in the covers,
I look out from
my darkened window.

I call her into the glow
of the driveway light.
I conjure the crackle of home rocks
under tires.
I haggle with God to fold in

the short ends of the world
until poles and apocalypse and my mother
are all tucked in this
envelope glow.
Bring her back from the ends
of this covered world
or bring the ends in on us all.

It’s hard to say what about the poem moves me most.  I think it’s that, when I’m falling most deeply under its spell, I am in a hushed place—I am inside the child I was once like being in a museum, able to understand things but not to change them, able to enjoy the memory without reliving it.  Whatever autumn night is reaching out to Randall from his past, it’s a night I was awake for also.

I think part of the success of the poem is the way the poem’s world is bounded—the figure of the mother like a bright but absent star keeping all of the pieces in orbit around herself.  The poem feels her absence almost as keenly as the boy inside the poem.  She is always almost about to come through the door, always a few steps away.  Every creak outside the window may be the first sign of her return.  For me, this makes the mother into a mythic figure—she feels very symbolic, representing something else, something more immediate.  I’ll admit, I don’t know where to take that impulse—I can identify with the more literal meaning of the poem (the boy missing his mother at night) but I don’t know if my non-literal reactions are the same as those going on for Randall.

Because I think he’s gifted with words, one of my complaints to Randall about this poem is how restrained it feels.  There are moments where the language is startlingly beautiful—most purely, when the boy “haggles” with God, like some bearded Old Testament saint, for the drawing in of the world on itself.  It resonates, for me, with some of the things Eliot says in the Four Quartets: the closeness of the divine, and the ways in which our lives move on that plane.  I want a little more of that in the poem, and I also want to feel more of the motion of the evening, from the distractions of the wind and the father’s games to the silent vigil kept, lonely but for the tick of the second hand, as the night grows a bit too long.  The moods are just a little too similar in the poem for me, and I think a little more contrast would help heighten the tension towards the poem’s end and give it more oomph (to use the technical poet’s term).

But my criticisms are really small ones: honest ones, but minor.  By far the truest thing I can say about the poem is that it quiets my mind enough to hear a boy I have almost lost.  And that’s a rare gift, and one to be thankful for.  If this poem is a gift to you (or if it is not), I hope you’ll say so in the comments—I wonder if this is a very idiosyncratic reaction from me, or if the poem’s appeal is much broader.

“Some sin is black, an’ some ain’ so black, but dis sin you had is pure scarlet.”

I saw many old friends today at a memorial service for a man I worked with for five years—it was good to see them, in spite of the somber circumstances, and it was especially nice to hear from a friend and retired colleague that he’s been reading my blog (thanks, Brian!).  So I thought I ought to thank you all for reading what I write here (when I write it): I still don’t quite know what this is or what it means to me, but to share a journey with friends is a very good thing, and your occasional comments of appreciation and encouragement are really lovely to receive.  Now, on with Scarlet Sister Mary.

As can be guessed, I think, the quotation at the head of today’s post explains part of our title.  The central character of this story appears to be a girl named Mary, working as a sharecropper fieldhand on an old plantation in the post-bellum South.  She’s a member of the church (“sister Mary”, then) and an orphan, who’s been raised by a kind old woman named Maum Hannah—it’s Maum Hannah’s voice speaking in that quotation.  What’s sister Mary’s scarlet sin?  Do you even have to ask?

Sister Mary’s fifteen now, almost sixteen, and has fallen in love with a young man named July.  July is a brash, high-spirited, extroverted young man, whose twin, June, is a quiet, focused, loyal young man who is also in love with Mary, of course.  The story rushes quite rapidly through Mary disappointing poor June and being courted by lively July, so that we reach her wedding day.  And as she’s getting ready for her wedding, Maum Hannah notices that sister Mary’s belly is swollen…that she and July have been “a-havin sin”, as she puts it.  I haven’t hit the social consequences of this yet—I’m really hoping I’m not reading some retread of the story of Hester Prynne, but it sort of looks that way, doesn’t it?

I don’t know that Mary’s the most interesting character yet.  I think probably I’m most intrigued by Maum Hannah and her son, the crippled Budda Ben, who’s served as a father/uncle/brother figure to Mary during her years of growing up.  Ben was injured as an infant when his mother fell on top of him while sneaking away from her husband to visit her lover (Ben’s biological father)…so Maum Hannah knows a thing or two about “scarlet sins”, it seems.  The resulting relationship between these two characters seems really deep and promising—here’s just one moment that makes me think so:

“Crippled Budda Ben was bound to die ahead of his mother who prayed to God every day of her life to let her outlive him, so that when he died she could see that his box was made right.  Budda’s poor legs must not be cramped when they were laid in the ground for their last long rest.  She knew how to pray and she would outlive Budda Ben as sure as the world.”

Now, there’s a mother-son relationship I think is really worth exploring!  Next to that, “scarlet” sister Mary’s struggle with the puritanical values of her church as opposed to the hedonistic values of her soon-to-be-husband strikes me as a little too paint-by-numbers.  We’ll see if Julia Peterkin’s idea of an interesting story intersects with mine—I hope so, at least.

I continue to be bothered by this book’s racial attitudes, but I’m worried I’m not being fair: walk through this with me and tell me what you think.  The dialect these people speak is really the most appalling Amos’n’Andy stuff.  To illustrate, here’s the scene in which June learns that Mary’s in love with July:

“You is gwine to marry July? . . . July ever was a lucky boy.  E ever was.  I never had a luck in my life.”

“Ain’ you glad I’m gwine to be you sister, June?” she asked him.

“Not so glad, Si May-e.”

I haven’t even gotten to Maum Hannah’s standard outbursts (“Lawd, gal, I’m dat sorry, I could pure cry like a baby.  I could, fo’true.”)  So, I look at this and feel like I’m being asked to think of these character as “jes’ folks”, people without real depth or dignity, people who can barely string thoughts together.  I think this is heightened because of the narrator’s voice—for an example of that, here’s a snippet from the description of the old plantation where this book takes place.

“Earthquakes tumble down chimneys, storms break trees and houses, floods wash the earth so bare that its very bones are exposed, droughts burn up crops and weeds with impartial cruelty, but the old plantation is swift to hide every scar made by all this wickedness. . . . Life fills and enfolds everything here, never overlooking in the press of work to be done the smallest or most insignificant creature, and silently, with weariless patience and diligence, strange miracles are wrought as youth rises out of decay and death becomes only another beginning.”

I’m not saying that’s William F. Buckley talking, but I think it’s awfully well articulated, in general.  The contrast between the highly educated voice of the narrator (which remains always very distant from the characters, rarely narrating their thoughts/perceptions) and the voices of the people we encounter is stark.  So, am I wrong to react negatively to this?  Maybe my distaste at the dialect is a kind of condescension as a reader, a way of imposing my racial or class prejudices on a legitimate discourse?  Or is it the writer who’s condescending, setting up the tensions in this piece to be an impassioned and emotional minstrel show?  I can’t decide…and I’d very much like to hear your opinions, based on the evidence provided.

Poetry Friday: 1926 (part 2)

Another of the country’s great poets bursts onto the stage in 1926: with his first published collection, Langston Hughes establishes himself as one of the chief voices of the Harlem Renaissance.  From that c0llection, today I offer you “Mother to Son”:

Well, son, I’ll tell you:
Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.
It’s had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor—
Bare.
But all the time
I’se been a-climbin’ on,
And reachin’ landin’s,
And turnin’ corners,
And sometimes goin’ in the dark
Where there ain’t been no light.
So, boy, don’t you turn back.
Don’t you set down on the steps.
‘Cause you finds it’s kinder hard.
Don’t you fall now—
For I’se still goin’, honey,
I’se still climbin’,
And life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.