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: Snow

As I type, my neighborhood lies blanketed under 7 inches of snow (or so), with occasional flurries still falling, and more expected off and on for the coming week.  Temperatures drop to single digits tonight, which I think may be the first time I’ve lived in a place this cold.  Given the above, and the fact that I walked to and from work today in the snow (about 3 miles, round trip), I’ve been remembering snatches of poetry that evoke winter and snow most powerfully for me, and I thought today, rather than look at whole poems, I’d grab at a few lines that really seem to work for me, and try to understand why.

To begin, the first stanza of a poem by Christina Rossetti:

In the bleak midwinter, frosty wind made moan,
Earth stood hard as iron, water like a stone;
Snow had fallen, snow on snow, snow on snow,
In the bleak midwinter, long ago.

I used to post this stanza on my online assignment calendar for my A.P. class in midwinter break, based purely on the use of the word “midwinter” (I thought I was being clever in a sort of literary way).  But over the years I came to enjoy that ritual, and to linger over the sounds of the words—the transformative power of the cold, which converts earth to iron and water to stone like some elderly alchemist, grown old and strong in his secret art.  The soft overwhelming feeling of that repetition in the 3rd line, as snow surrounds, immersing the world so fully that it consumes even itself, burying snows under snow.  Rossetti is a master of sound, and here she brings the tones together just perfectly for my ear, the long “o” of the wind’s moaning and the somehow gentler long “o” of the hushed snowfall reinforcing each other.  Gorgeous, and always on my mind this time of year, especially in weather like this.

And of course, I cannot neglect to mention Wallace Stevens’ thirteenth way of looking at a blackbird—and my favorite way:

It was evening all afternoon.
It was snowing
And it was going to snow.
The blackbird sat
In the cedar-limbs.

Of course the pinnacle here is his first line, one of the best lines in poetry (to my mind) and one of those lines that makes me want to trade in my right arm (well, maybe just a finger or two) to get access to that same Muse.  The oppression of these shortened Northern winter afternoons, with the low light and the feeling of clouds weighing on your back and the hasty feeling of sun setting much too fast, for me happens immediately in that tight little phrase.  And then he rides right over that feeling with the addition of two important facts—it’s snowing (easily observed) and it’s going to snow (which always delights me, whether I interpret it as his depressed conviction that it’s not letting up anytime soon, or his depressed conviction that even if it lets up, it’ll be back for more before too long).  Juxtaposed, as in the poem’s other 12 stanzas, is the blackbird—poised, distinct against the canvas of the cedar’s evergreen, remote somehow from the world of snow and yet identified closely for me with the hovering evening, the darkness at the heart of the winter light.  Stevens doesn’t do it for everybody, and he doesn’t do it for me often enough (no matter how many times Professor Brenner read “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” to us, I never got it), but in this poem it happens to me like Mozart, where I sit agape that a man can toss out this many sparkling images with such careless ease.

Lastly, a poem on which I can barely comment: Robert Frost’s tiny clockwork gem, “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening”.  I wanted to excerpt, but I just have to give you the whole thing:

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

My personal history with this poem is a long one—it’s one of the first poems I ever memorized, it’s one of the first poems I ever tried to imitate.  It’s closely associated with my memory of the first time I ever went for a walk with the girl (then a friend) who became my wife.  The last lines were taped to the mirror in my bathroom for a year for reasons too complex (and in some ways personal) to get into.  Part of what I like about it is how grafted it is onto my mind—I can recite it at the drop of a hat, and do (to myself, usually under my breath) when I see the right scene, or feel the right breeze.  It is a joke (and one he himself had no problems telling) that America’s greatest poet of winter and ice was a man named Frost.  He was born to the work.

The snow in this poem is in some ways just a regular, real snowfall.  The speaker in the poem stops to watch it because he can, because it is one of the luxuries of being out for a long journey that time can be lost like this, a minute or a half an hour, without feeling the keen edge of the clock’s hand sweeping you forward.  The snow is also mythic, full of symbolic power.  It transfixes the speaker because it is the place he would like to be swallowed up by.  Here, far from the world, far from anyone who could lay claim to woods and lake and snow with some human piece of paper, the speaker would like to remain.  He is tethered loosely to the earth, drawn back to it only by the gentle sounds of his horse, the easy sweep of the snow that will bury him if he stays, and the knowledge of a promise he has made, if only to himself.  He feels a longing for the peace of death.

This isn’t morbid, or if it is, it’s entirely suitable.  The world’s seasons awaken these feelings in us.  The speaker in the poem moves on, returns to life and duty and promise as the world will in the expected spring, but he leaves a part of himself behind on that silent hillside.  Someday he will stop there again, and for good.

Snow, as you can see, plays on a lot of images and feelings for me.  Beauty, freedom, danger, death.  I expect it does the same for you.  If there’s a poem or a stanza or a line somewhere that “captures” winter or snowfall for you, I hope you’ll share it in a comment on this post.  I always like adding to my personal library.

New Year’s Eve: Another poem, because I can’t not share it

Yesterday, I swam a bit in my melancholy, offering up a poem by Linda Pastan on the juxtaposition of beginnings and endings: specifically, death and the New Year.  This was a good thing for me to do for me—heaven only knows if it worked for anyone else (judging by the comments, it did for my good friend Paul Hamann: thanks, Paul!).  But I did leave it feeling that neither Linda nor I had really gotten it right, despite our best efforts.  And then today I was directed by happy chance to a poem by former Poet Laureate (and 2-time Pulitzer winner) Richard Wilbur entitled “Year’s End”, and the work gives in almost excruciatingly gorgeous fashion the words both Pastan and I did not quite find yesterday.  Without further ado, for this year’s end (and the next year’s beginning), “Year’s End” by Richard Wilbur:

Now winter downs the dying of the year,
And night is all a settlement of snow;
From the soft street the rooms of houses show
A gathered light, a shapen atmosphere,
Like frozen-over lakes whose ice is thin
And still allows some stirring down within.

I’ve known the wind by water banks to shake
The late leaves down, which frozen where they fell
And held in ice as dancers in a spell
Fluttered all winter long into a lake;
Graved on the dark in gestures of descent,
They seemed their own most perfect monument.

There was perfection in the death of ferns
Which laid their fragile cheeks against the stone
A million years. Great mammoths overthrown
Composedly have made their long sojourns,
Like palaces of patience, in the gray
And changeless lands of ice. And at Pompeii

The little dog lay curled and did not rise
But slept the deeper as the ashes rose
And found the people incomplete, and froze
The random hands, the loose unready eyes
Of men expecting yet another sun
To do the shapely thing they had not done.

These sudden ends of time must give us pause.
We fray into the future, rarely wrought
Save in the tapestries of afterthought.
More time, more time. Barrages of applause
Come muffled from a buried radio.
The New-year bells are wrangling with the snow.

For me, Wilbur captures with seemingly effortless beauty the bittersweetness of these thresholds in a way I marvel at. (And in end-rhyme that is perfectly understated.  There’s a reason he’s a Laureate and we’re not, my friends.)  Poetry should do this to us—open up words for the feelings we cannot frame, and push us to see something marvelous in our own lives.  The hushed, almost inaudible phrases with which he describes the glow in our houses—the “gathered light”, the “shapen atmosphere”—awake in me a realization of the comfort of being in a home, wherever that is.  Wilbur is dancing down paths Robert Frost knew well, which is part of what I love about the poem, since it’s clearly an homage to Frost’s view of the world but also clearly original and not remotely imitative of Frost’s structures (the ones I know, at least).

The description of the frozen leaves alone, a sight I know very well (I imagine most of us do), brought me up short with wonder at his phrasing.  I mean, come on—“graved on the dark in gestures of descent”?  What Muse did this guy bewitch to win these words, and where can I get her number?  And the thing about the poem that inspires perhaps the most elation, for me, is the way he ties these homely visions—the snow-filled streets, the living-room lamps, the leaves dancing in ice—to the grand motions of time.  To the ashen figures of Pompeii, the creatures of lost worlds adrift in unmelting snows, the fossils locked for epochs beneath the soil.  We become part of something greater as Wilbur links image to image with a steady hand and a bright eye.  He knows where he is going.

I’m still wrestling with the last stanza, but in this case I think it’s because it’s saying exactly what I want to say for myself, and I’m still figuring out how to do that.  Portions of it (“more time, more time”) feel like last words, and others (“the sudden ends of time must give us pause”) like a benediction.  Mostly I’m struck with the tension he is winding between the first and last stanzas—the way the new year’s bells do battle with the “settlement of snow”.  He’s doing good work, whatever it is he’s doing.  I’ll be pondering this one a while.

Poetry Friday: 1923 (part 3)

1923 is such an excellent year that I’m glad I got a third swing of the bat.  This is the year of Robert Frost’s New Hampshire: such a powerful collection of poems.  “Fire and Ice” (a poem that speaks to the darkness of human nature).  “The Need of Being Versed in Country Things” (a poem whose final lines still unsettle me).  “Nothing Gold Can Stay” (a poem whose power has only grown for me, over the years).  But among this collection—Frost’s greatest, I think—is a poem with a long-standing connection to both my wife and myself, in a myriad of ways, and she said it was the right one to post today.  I leave it to you to tell me what this is about—Despair?  Hope?  Death?  Freedom?  I have comments to make, but as always, I would much rather hear what you think.  Without further ado: “Stopping By Woods On A Snowy Evening”.

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep.
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

“You’ll find out that pretty nearly everything you believe about life—about marriage, especially—is lies.”

The above words are not what most people would be glad to hear on any occasion.  To hear them, as Claude Wheeler does, after asking a man’s permission to court his daughter, must be even more devastating.  What is strange is that Mr. Royce, whose daughter Enid is a long-time friend of Claude’s and has tended Claude on his sick-bed, doesn’t seem opposed to the marriage for his daughter’s sake.  If anything, he seems to be warning Claude that Enid won’t make him happy, that Enid is a poor choice of a wife (for Claude, at least), and the fellow seems sincere.  Maybe this tells me more about the Royce’s relationship than it does about our author’s attitudes, but it still seems a strange conversation for Cather to offer us.

Generally, I’m enjoying the book a lot.  Claude’s struggles as a farmer (and his difficulties relating to his family, as well as his trouble figuring out who to court and how to court them) are interesting, occasionally amusing, and seem to endear him more and more to me even as they reveal his deepest flaws.  The background of all this is how much the world is changing—the mill runs on a gas engine now, not water power.  Claude reflects at length on the strangeness of the farmer’s world, in which truly excellent produce and livestock are sold, and the money is used to buy cheap, flimsy, unreliable bits of machinery and furniture.  A horse, he notes, will last you three times as long as an automobile: we might be down to “twice as long” now (with the exception of my father’s ancient green van) but it’s still an interesting idea.  Claude’s family and friends are an interesting group, especially the housekeeper, Mahailey, who chatters in some indescribable brogue and bustles about the house during a snowstorm wearing a specially hideous coat and hat she saves for “calamitous occasions”.  Even Enid, who’s become suddenly a major character in the story, is a more complicated creature than simply the attractive girl next door.  I am fairly certain Claude’s dreams of romance are doomed (this section of the novel, Book II, is entitled “Enid”…I’m thinking that the last book would bear her name if a successful courtship was likely), but I’ll admit I can’t figure out why.  If Enid turns Claude down after the way she’s behaved towards him, I’ll certainly understand his shock.  It’s funny, though–by page 150, you’d think I could tell you what this novel is “about” but I can’t say I’m certain yet.  It’s about more than Claude Wheeler learning to love the right girl, or learning that farming is pretty hard after all, or learning that the academic life is the life for him.  More than that, I cannot say.

What I will say again is that Cather is a good writer, and this book is a good read.  It does not sparkle with the same wit and humor that Edith Wharton has at her fingertips, but there is a quality to this society and these characters that is undeniably appealing without being excessively cheery.  There are real tensions–the society’s reactions to Ernest’s atheism (and the suspicion that Claude shares his skepticism), or perhaps the awkward and often unpleasant behavior of Bayliss, Claude’s older brother.  None of it surges over into melodrama, though–in many ways, I feel I’m reading the sort of book about Nebraska that Tarkington wanted to write about Indiana.  A wide, sweeping view of the community in which the characters live, casting an eye somewhat critically on the “progress” that is changing the world.  A focus on a young person who does not quite understand themselves for who they are, and who, for good or bad, feels a sense of detachment from the family and friends who surround them.  I wish Booth had read some of Cather’s work and taken it more to heart.

So, both to illustrate the style of Cather (to contrast it with the excerpts I gave of Wharton’s work) and to share a little moment I enjoyed, here’s a snippet from one of the chapters on the snowstorm:

“He rose and went to look out, but the west windows were so plastered with snow that they were opaque.  Even from the one on the south he could see nothing for a moment; then Mahailey must have carried her lamp to the kitchen window beneath, for all at once a broad yellow beam shone out into the choked air, and down it millions of snowflakes hurried like armies, an unceasing progression, moving as close as they could without forming a solid mass.  Claude struck the frozen window-frame with his fist, lifted the lower sash, and thrusting out his head tried to look abroad into the engulfed night.  There was a solemnity about a storm of such magnitude; it gave one a feeling of infinity.  The myriads of white particles that crossed the rays of lamplight seemed to have a quiet purpose, to be hurrying toward a definite end.  A faint purity, like a fragrance almost too fine for human senses, exhaled from them as they clustered about his head and shoulders.”