I’ve run out of words.
Fortunately, there’s poetry.
Poetry Friday today is hosted by Sylvia Vardell at Poetry for Children. Thank you, Sylvia.
Country of Freedom
Country of freedom, be free in thy heart:
Free from the shackles of poisoning pride,
Free from the liar’s contemptible art,
Free from allurements that tempt thee aside,
Free from the crafty and treacherous guide,
Free from the ravening greed of the mart,
Free from the snares that in opulence hide, —
Country of freedom be free in thy heart.
— Amos Russel Wells (1863-1933)
This is going to be a year absolutely packed with literature.
It’s going to be a year of taking risks with writing, including no longer dipping a toe into fantasy and fairy tales, but diving in, and also… taking my poetry writing seriously. I’m not fond of calling myself a writer, much less a poet… somehow the idea of A Poet seems much more deep and knowledgeable and serious than my iamb-counting, form-conforming, rule-bound, doggerel scribbling self. How do people become poets, anyway? In the same way that we become writers – by doing the thing, I’m told. So, I will be doing the thing, taking serious study with a textbook and instructors and all, and with scheduled practice time.
It’s… a little terrifying, honestly. But, it’s also very hopeful and anticipatory – much like the 365 neat, blank squares marching importantly through our calendars. So many things cluster close to our imaginations, tugging on our fine hairs, breathing into our ears, “Maybe this year! Maybe this year!”
Well? Maybe it is all going to happen this year. But, how will we find out if we don’t start?
Poetry Friday is hosted by Ruth, all the way from Haiti, at There Is No Such Thing As A God-Forsaken Town. Have a lovely, restful weekend – because Monday’s the day we jump in and make it all happen!
I loved history in school – it seemed an endlessly wonderful story of All These People doing All These Interesting Things! My sophomore year in high school, however, Dave Reedy was my teacher. Mr. Reedy was (IS) a hippie who was caustic about the government, outspoken about “History Is Written By The Winner” and made us students realize – way back even in the mid/late eighties – that what we were being taught wasn’t exactly inclusive, thus it wasn’t wholly factual. It was from Mr. Reedy that I learned to engage history critically, to think of it with my whole mind and not just passively accept what the text said.
Thus, it was from Mr. Reedy I learned that I Would Not Want To Visit History. History has a smell that is stomach turning, and a texture that would make me want to wash my hands – repeatedly. History has soap that is made of lye and tallow, and not much else. History’s water is cold, unless I boil it over an open flame. Dry skin, toasted front and frozen back, scratchy wool and fleas – I’m…certain I’d want to avoid History at all costs.
…Which is why it’s so funny to me that our last Poetry Peeps prompt of the year is mine (also the date was wrong further indication of my involvement): Theme is Wish I’d Been There, or an historical event that incites wistfulness. Wistfulness! But, do I really wish I’d been there?
love lies lying
“I wish I’d been there,”
The kindest sort of falsehoods
told by introverts,
the chronically booked, and those
sparing of tender feelings.
not to mention the lack of modern dentistry
Nits, pease porridge, fleas
Creaky whalebone, bloomers, wigs –
Tanners, tallow, smoke and coal –
Grimed with sweaty industry, the
Grubby march of history.
Um… no. No, I don’t wish I’d been there. But, it’s nice to pretend I bound into adventure, unbothered by oh, slavery, bug bites, rodents of plague-passing sizes, stepping unshod (or shod, for that matter), in scat, or eating dubious food like lark’s tongues or tripe. It’s nice to imagine, but let’s be real: I only wish I’d been there because the outfits look so interesting in paintings and pictures. Oh, well.
If you’d like to see what the other wistful Poetry Peeps poetry closes out the year, Kelly is back with a wistful haiku. Laura is here, while Tricia is here. Sara is here, and Cousin Mary Lee is here. Stay tuned for more Poetry Peeps checking in throughout the day. Poetry Friday today is ably hosted by the poet Irene Latham – thanks Irene! Happy Christmas, if you celebrate! Warm hearths, cozy reading nooks, and historically anachronistic comforts to you.
The American Chemical Society in 2018 filmed a YouTube video of four hours of a fire burning, with all the lovely attendant sounds of popping and hissing wood, snapping sparks… and overlaid it with the ethereal looking, ephemerally beautiful chemical equations that make up fire, gingerbread, Santa’s suit, reindeer, whisky, chocolate, …and Xanax, I think. This year, the Monterrey Bay Aquarium has a lovely video of fiery colored jellyfish… against a soundtrack of popping, hissing fire. It is not… quite… the same. Himself calls it Sizzling Sealife, which is both horrifyingly amusing and right on the money.
…which kind of brings me to today’s poem, which is one of my all-time favorites, and which I discovered during a college English exam. I had a professor whose joy it was to introduce to us a poem during an exam and require us to write at minimum a five-paragraph in-class essay in response. For many reasons, each time I read it, I am struck anew by the aching beauty of this poem.
Those Winter Sundays
Sundays too my father got up early
and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,
then with cracked hands that ached
from labor in the weekday weather made
banked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.
I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking.
When the rooms were warm, he’d call,
and slowly I would rise and dress,
fearing the chronic angers of that house,
Speaking indifferently to him,
who had driven out the cold
and polished my good shoes as well.
What did I know, what did I know
of love’s austere and lonely offices?
“Those Winter Sundays” from Collected Poems of Robert Hayden, ©1966.
I learned years later that Robert Haydn was Black, and that twinged my heart even harder. Generations of men, working in silence, putting out the fires that threaten and starting the ones that warm. Misunderstood, misanthropic, perhaps, inarticulate and unstinting. Men like my Dad. Keep warm the fires of your hearth – the hearths of your family, chosen or born. Take no love for granted.
In my first apartment, it was so cold I burned candles from November to February, ran the oven at night, and, when my boyfriend came over, put cherry-flavored (? scented?) pipe tobacco on a thin, warped sheet pan, to make that musty attic apartment (complete with molded avocado green carpet and an orange and white crystal beaded curtain I’m still a little sad I didn’t take when I moved out) smell nice. (Why didn’t I use incense? Because it would’ve made smoke – prohibited in that apartment. Crisped tobacco was somehow… acceptably not smoke? Look, I never said logic was my strong point.)
This poem hits me in memory.
Sugar Water in Winter
A bowl of rose water dreams itself empty
on the radiator: It’s December and we can
hardly afford the heat, our milk money
crinkling hungry over the cold counter
of our convenience store, the very last
of our cash for creamer, for pleasantries,
for cheap tea and cigarettes, for the barely-
there scent of roses burning softly. We trade
our hungers for hearth, for the clank and hiss
of warmth. Small fires, these, but even we,
in our clamorous poverty, demand pleasure:
steal sugar, our neighbor’s flowers, and never,
ever are caught thankless in better weather.
– Ted Kooser
May we indeed never be caught thankless in better weather – or in better years. Will we remember this one and recall all that we avoided, the many “dangers, toils and snares” through which we came? I hope so – and that we store up our small pleasures to remember as we recall our struggle as well.
Though I started wearing contact lenses when I was sixteen, for a ten year period, my glaucoma – and its associated drugs – changed too frequently to make that comfortable or realistic. But, finally, things settled and stabilized, and in March of this year I ordered my first pair in a long, long time… which was subsequently delayed in arrival until …yesterday. I put them in with glee!
…And then realized I could see the dust in the corners of my house much, much more clearly.
All of this put me in mind of the Advent poem my friend Andi shared with our poetry group this past weekend.
Making the House Ready
Dear Lord, I have swept and I have washed but
still nothing is as shining as it should be
for you. Under the sink, for example, is an
uproar of mice; it is the season of their
many children. What shall I do? And under the eaves
and through the walls the squirrels
have gnawed their ragged entrances but it is the season
when they need shelter, so what shall I do? And
the raccoon limps into the kitchen and opens the cupboard
while the dog snores, the cat hugs the pillow;
what shall I do? Beautiful is the new snow falling
in the yard and the fox who is staring boldly
up the path, to the door. And still I believe you will
come, Lord: you will, when I speak to the fox,
the sparrow, the lost dog, the shivering sea-goose, know
that really I am speaking to you whenever I say,
as I do all morning and afternoon: Come in, Come in.
– Mary Oliver
I love this poem – because more than anything else, it reminds me that nothing we do is ever complete – and we are surrounded by opportunity we might miss if we rush to make ready for “the important stuff.” Perhaps nothing is more important than now? Perhaps nothing is more vital than saying “come in” to whatever gift it is that is knocking? Today, I greet the opportunity to read with my new contact lenses – and ignore the dust in the corners for one more afternoon.
Thankfully, we made it! November has been a CHALLENGING month, but here we are, at the finish line of the final Friday, well-rested (in theory), full of leftovers (hopefully) and ready to celebrate the season with some more poetry.
Our theme this month was the last of our hindsight/foresight poems where we were meant to either revise an older poem, or respond to one, and …well. I tried really hard to actually write something to theme AND something positive and hindsight-y at the same time. I wholly missed the theme, but you’ll have to judge how well I did with the rest. I find that this year it has been ESPECIALLY hard to keep an upbeat tone when looking back – I can look back and see so many mistakes! – but I’m still standing. We’re still here. That’s worth gratitude, is it not?
So, as this bittersweet celebration weekend continues, I’m looking back over 2020, and remembering how it all began…
new year’s eve
the neighborhood awash in crashing booms
(we midnight sleepers sighing at the sound)
a new year – 2020 – on the loom
as Fate took a fresh thread and looped it ’round
the strutting idiot frets into the light
and bloviates while Nero’s fiddles play
“If we had known” and knowing that first night,
What act could change the outcome of today?
for here we stand – in ashes of the blaze
so many gone and countless lost to fear
not helpless – science battles this malaise
hold fast to faith – that we will persevere.
Gathered apart, our courage battle-scarred
With hard-won grace, with hope our honor guard.
Writing this Thanksgiving morning, I’ve been texting back and forth with my sisters, getting snaps of what they’re cooking, a bittersweet echo of our usual tradition. Thanksgiving has always been THE Davis Family holiday. We don’t really bother with any other holiday the same way the whole year ’round. And yet, a holiday, which we’ve been socialized to believe is about family and gratitude, has dark, bloodstained roots in normalizing indigenous genocide, pain and loss – which is obviously not to be celebrated. And yet – joy is a defiance of tragedy and days of peace and rest must be taken where they can be found. Every year we seek out more ways to bring this into balance – a history of tragedy and a present of loss, offset by family feasting. It’s a process, to be sure. May you, as you navigate what celebration, and what this particular celebration means to you and yours, find a way to put out the joy into the world that it needs while doing the right your heart – and this world – needs as well.
Want more poetry? Check out how Laura’s looking back. Sara’s wordsmithing is here, and here’s Liz’s. Find Michelle’s poem here, find Carol’s here, and here’s Tricia, too. Stay tuned for more Poetry Peeps checking in with their links. Meanwhile, Poetry Friday is hosted today at Carol’s Corner – with gratitude to book-talker and teacher, Carol!