Season books and eponymous poem

Good grief, I almost forgot to re-post the eponymous poem!

I received a volume of Rowan Williams poetry for Christmas, and have been distracted by that.  His “Flight Path” in that volume reminds me of some of the haunting ‘walking dead’ scenes from the Justin Kurzel film of Macbeth that we saw on Boxing Day.

Other Christmas books included Dave Walker’s newest collection, Heroes of the Coffee Rota (which is fabulous), Terry Eagleton’s Hope Without Optimism, James Martin’s Becoming Who You Are, and Steve Silberman’s Neurotribes.  In recent reads, I highly recommend Jenny Lawson’s Furiously Happy to those among us who preserve a sense of humor about anxiety disorders and don’t mind a certain amount of foul language.   A new-to-me poet is Jane Kenyon, whom I discovered via a The Religious Imagineer post. Re-posting here “Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks”:

I am the blossom pressed in a book,
found again after two hundred years…

I am the maker, the lover, and the keeper…

When the young girl who starves
sits down to a table
she will sit beside me…

I am food on the prisoner’s plate…

I am water rushing to the wellhead,
filling the pitcher until it spills…

I am the patient gardener
of the dry and weedy garden…

I am the stone step,
the latch, and the working hinge…

I am the heart, contracted by joy…
the longest hair, white
before the rest…

I am there in the basket of fruit
presented to the widow…

I am the musk rose opening
unattended, the fern on the boggy summit…

I am the one whose love
overcomes you, already with you
when you think to call my name…

— Jane Kenyon, “Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks”

The Retrieval System

Maxine Kumin and I go way back.  She came to talk to my English class when I was in the 7th or 8th grade, probably almost 40 years ago now.  Mostly I remember that there was something vaguely subversive about her and that my English teacher was excited and proud and nervous.

I liked whatever it was the poet-lady read to us, and I remembered her visit.  Years later as an undergraduate in Cambridge, Massachusetts I frequented Groliers, the poetry book store.  When I tried out (unsuccessfully) for The Advocate, the literary magazine whose alumni included TS Eliot and e e cummings, it was a book of Maxine Kumin’s poetry that I reviewed for them: her then recently-published The Retrieval System.

At the time, I thought I understood it.  Perhaps I liked it, sensed its authenticity perhaps, but no, I really didn’t get it.  Not the way I do now.

The Retrieval System came out when Maxine Kumin (who died earlier this year at the age of 88) was about 50.  She was reflecting on the suicide of a close friend, the growing-away of her young adult children, the memories of her deceased parents, the changes in her body, and what it was like to still be married.  Now I get it.  For her, animals were the retrieval system that recalled for her the people who had left her life:

“For example,
the wethered goat who runs free in pasture and stable
with his flecked, agate eyes and his minus-sign pupils
blats in the tiny voice of my former piano teacher…“

In honor of all those whose young adult children are coming home for the holidays and whose deceased parents are not, I offer these two gems from this collection.

Changing the Children
Anger does this.
Wishing the furious wish
turns the son into a crow
the daughter, a porcupine.

Soon enough, no matter how
we want them to be happy
our little loved ones, no
matter how we prod them
into our sun that it may
shine on them, they whine
to stand in the dry-goods store.
Fury slams in.
The willful fury befalls.

Now the varnish-black son in a tree
crow the berater, denounces the race
of fathers and the golden daughter
all arched bristle and quill
leaves scribbles on the tree bark
writing how The Nameless One
accosted her in the dark.

How put an end to this cruel spell?
Drop the son from the tree with a rifle.
Introduce maggots under his feathers
to eat down to the pure bone of boy.

In spring when the porcupine comes
all stealth and waddle to feed on the willows
stun her with one blow of the sledge
and the entrapped girl will fly out
crying Daddy! or Danny!
or is it Darling?
and we will live all in bliss
for a year and a day until
the legitimate rage of parents
speeds the lad off this time
in the uniform of a toad
who spews a contagion of warts
while the girl contracts to a spider
forced to spin from her midseam
the saliva of false repentance.

Eventually we get them back.
Now they are grown up.
They are much like ourselves.
They wake mornings beyond cure,
not a virgin among them.
We are civil to one another.
We stand in the kitchen
sIicing bread, drying spoons,
and tuning in to the weather.

My Father’s Neckties

Last night my color-blind chain-smoking father
who has been dead for fourteen years
stepped up out of a basement tie shop
downtown and did not recognize me.
The number he was wearing was as terrible
as any from my girlhood, a time of
ugly ties and acrimony; six or seven
blue lightning bolts outlined in yellow.
Although this was my home town it was tacky
and unfamiliar, it was Rabat or Gibraltar
Daddy smoking his habitual
square-in-the-mouth cigarette and coughing
ashes down the lightning jags. He was
my age exactly, it was wordless, a window
opening on an interior we both knew
where we had loved each other, keeping it quiet.
Why do I wait years and years to dream this outcome?
My brothers, in whose dreams he must as surely
turn up wearing rep ties or polka dots clumsily
knotted, do not speak of their encounters.
When we die, all four of us, in
whatever sequence, the designs
will fall off like face masks
and the rayon ravel from this hazy version
of a man who wore hard colors recklessly
and hid out in the foreign
bargain basements of his feelings.

Eponymous poem….

Well, so that is that.  Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes —
Some have got broken — and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school.  There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week —
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted — quite unsuccessfully —
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers.  Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.
The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off.  But, for the time being, here we all are,
Back in the moderate Aristotelian city
Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid’s geometry
And Newton’s mechanics would account for our experience,
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.
It seems to have shrunk during the holidays.  The streets
Are much narrower than we remembered; we had forgotten
The office was as depressing as this.  To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
For the innocent children who whispered so excitedly
Outside the locked door where they knew the presents to be
Grew up when it opened.  Now, recollecting that moment
We can repress the joy, but the guilt remains conscious;
Remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It.
And craving the sensation but ignoring the cause,
We look round for something, no matter what, to inhibit
Our self-reflection, and the obvious thing for that purpose
Would be some great suffering.  So, once we have met the Son,
We are tempted ever after to pray to the Father;
“Lead us into temptation and evil for our sake.”
They will come, all right, don’t worry; probably in a form
That we do not expect, and certainly with a force
More dreadful than we can imagine.  In the meantime
There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair,
Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem
From insignificance.  The happy morning is over,
The night of agony still to come; the time is noon:
When the Spirit must practice his scales of rejoicing
Without even a hostile audience, and the Soul endure
A silence that is neither for nor against her faith
That God’s Will will be done, That, in spite of her prayers,
God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph.

–W.H. Auden, Christmas Oratorio