It’s the last day of April, the last day of National Poetry Month. So I’m going to play a little catch-up on this page with some poems that I love. I did not write them. I love them all the more.
These days are hard on people. All this standing back from one another. All the suspicion and worry. How will we manage? Where it might be lurking, this virus. For one reason or another, according to some loose association in my mind, each of the poems I include help me loosen the knot of loneliness. And remind me, more than ever these days, it’s a little more we, and a little less me.
Work has been a good distraction. So I’ve been absent from this page working on a stage play adaptation of The Poet of Tolstoy Park. I just finished the first draft. It’s parked on the window ledge like Granny’s apple pie, cooling, before I go back and have a taste and find what needs spitting out, and what does it need to brighten the flavor.
I pray you are yourself these days creating something. In the garden, or the kitchen, at the desk in the study, or the easel in the sunroom. In the workshop or at the sewing machine. Wherever and whatever. Anything that puts back some of what’s falling away.
I’ll make a comment or two, before or after the selections. Maybe trying to tighten up those loose threads for why I picked the poem. And, I hope you’ll Google the poet and go deeper into the talent suggested here.
The Knockdown Question by Les Murray
Why does God not spare the innocent?
The answer is not in the same world as the question.
And if I could answer it,
you would shrink from me in terror.
I think of grandmothers and babies, and all the good people in between who, every instant, are not spared. I think of the “insiders” like John the Baptist, and Jesus whom he baptized; and, Thomas, Simon the Zealot, Philip, Simon Peter, Matthias, Matthew, Jude, James son of Alpheus, James son of Zebedee, Bartholomew, and Andrew; and, Paul who wrote the letters. I think of Stephen—and Saul’s hand in that killing. How none of these were spared. Why, indeed?
If the poet could answer the knockdown question, he says you would shrink from him in terror. And what answer, what insight into the life-and-death motivations of God, would make a man wither in fear? Might the poet think the innocent are targeted? That would recoil the devout and the faithful. And, yet, Les Murray was a devoted Catholic, on a par with Flannery O’Connor.
Maybe this next 800-year old poem from a Sufi priest offers a radically different answer.
The Tent by Rumi
Outside, the freezing desert night.
This other night inside grows warm, kindling.
Let the landscape be covered with thorny crust.
We have a soft garden in here.
The continents blasted,
cities and little towns, everything
become a scorched, blackened ball.
The news we hear is full of grief for that future,
but the real news inside here
is there’s no news at all.
But where’s the path toward Rumi’s tent, so we, too, can get “inside here”?
Leaves of Grass (from the preface) by Walt Whitman
This is what you shall do:
Love the earth and sun and the animals,
despise riches, give alms to every one that asks,
stand up for the stupid and crazy,
devote your income and labor to others,
hate tyrants, argue not concerning God,
have patience and indulgence toward the people,
take off your hat to nothing known or unknown
or to any man or number of men,
go freely with powerful uneducated persons
and with the young and with the mothers of families,
read these leaves in the open air every season of every year of your life,
re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book,
dismiss whatever insults your own soul,
and your very flesh shall be a great poem
and have the richest fluency not only in its words
but in the silent lines of its lips and face and between the lashes of your eyes
and in every motion and joint of your body.
And Whitman also invites us to look to nature for courage, for evidence of providence.
Song of Myself [Book 3 of Leaves of Grass]
I believe a leaf of grass
is no less than the journey work of the stars,
And the pismire is equally perfect,
and a grain of sand, and the egg of the wren,
And the tree-toad is a chef-d’oeuvre for the highest,
And the running blackberry would adorn the parlors of heaven,
And the narrowest hinge in my hand puts to scorn all machinery,
And the cow crunching with depress’d head surpasses any statue,
And a mouse is miracle enough to stagger sextillions of infidels….
Many years ago, on page 47 of William Gay’s debut novel The Long Home, I read a paragraph that staggered my mind, caused me to make a small sound in my throat and shake my head. What? Who in Heaven’s name writes like that? The previous pages—and the rest that followed—were equally otherworldly. But this ‘graph. Well.
And I knew as I followed the story that the author was describing a Sunday morning after a big drunk in the hills of east Tennessee. The time was during Prohibition, and the roadhouse that hosted the Saturday night binge was hidden from the law back in the woods. The sun was coming up and it was going to be a scorcher and there were terrible bad hangovers revving up as some men and a few women scattered among the bushes found themselves waking up, still alive. But barely. Here’s the paragraph formatted to look like a poem.
The Long Home by William Gay
Morning. A hot August sun was smoking
up over a wavering treeline.
Such drunks as were still about,
struggled up slowly beneath
the malign heat slowly and painfully,
as if they moved in altered time,
or through an atmosphere thickening to amber.
The glade was absolutely breezeless
and the threat of the sun imminent and horrific.
The sweep of the sun lengthened.
Windowpanes were lacquered with refracted fire.
Sumac fronds hung wilted and benumbed as the
whores and smellsmocks rose bedewed
from the foxglove and nightshade.
Strange creatures averse
or unused to so maledictive a sun
they were heir to a curious fragility as if,
left to the depredations of the sun,
their very flesh would sear and blacken,
their limbs cringe and draw like those of scorched spiders.
The cool breath of the abyss drew them
through the undergrowth like
a magnet aligning iron filings on a glass slide.
And that last line, there’s the hereafter for our sufferings. We will come out of this tangled undergrowth.
Two poems that lean me toward the promise of something cool.
Dove that Ventured Outside by Rainer Maria Rilke
Dove that ventured outside, flying far from the dovecote:
housed and protected again, one with the day, the night,
knows what serenity is, for she has felt her wings
pass through all distance and fear in the course of her wanderings.
The doves that remained at home, never exposed to loss,
innocent and secure, cannot know tenderness;
only the won-back heart can ever be satisfied: free,
through all it has given up, to rejoice in its mastery.
Being arches itself over the vast abyss.
Ah, the ball that we dared, that we hurled into infinite space,
doesn’t it fill our hands differently upon its return:
heavier by the weight of where it has been.
Let This Darkness Be a Bell Tower by Rainer Maria Rilke
Quiet friend who has come so far,
feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,
what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.
In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.
And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.
(Sonnets to Orpheus II, 29)
The month of May ushers in blueberry season here. And that is its own kind of message and blessing. God’s gift to the innocents.
Picking Blueberries by Laura Gilpin
A summer shower but sunlight towards evening
I was leaving to pick blueberries
when you called, telling me of your mother’s death,
not unexpected, but your voice was brittle
as twigs broken by a sudden storm.
A full life, she had
children and grandchildren,
people she loved, those who loved her,
an emptiness now
where her life held tight to others.
I wish I could lift you out of the darkness
to bring you here to pick blueberries with me
in the last of the evening light,
to taste in each small globe
the warmth of the sun
the richness of all that is good and sweet
in this world.
I wish you could know
the comfort of picking blueberries in the evening
feeling in the last light for the ripest ones,
the ones that pull away easily
from the stem, eager to let go,
like your mother, falling gently
into God’s waiting hand.