Taking a breather. Pausing along the path.
This poem is thanks to Michael McClintock.
Taking a breather. Pausing along the path.
This poem is thanks to Michael McClintock.
The region in which I live has been experiencing a lengthy spate of below-freezing weather, many a chilly day. When I do not feel like concentrating too much, I browse seed catalogues. But I am also reading poetry.
Today, I’ve begun reading a 2011 collection of poems by Rachel Hadas, The Golden Road, poems that are dense and beautiful and often elegiac in tone. I took a workshop with Hadas quite a few years ago and had enjoyed her work since long before the class; it was a pleasure to have her as a reader/instructor. And it is, so far, an excellent book. I’ve been keeping her poem “The Study” in my mind for hours now.
Good news, though–I have commenced the year with new poems of my own. I have three drafts as of January 7, which is a good start.
But for today–yet another chilly day–I’m posting this little verse by William Carlos Williams.
It is the last day of the calendar year, and tomorrow evening a full moon will shine over our snow-dressed meadow. End-of-year events have left me thoughtful about time, memory, fear, love, and other such. Which brought to mind this poem I wrote quite a few years back. It’s part of The Red Queen Hypothesis manuscript.
Let 2018 be a time to press against the dam and swell into your next adventure.
Wait for that wisest of all counselors, Time. —Pericles, Plutarch’s Lives
Always, you have hated the wait,
fidgeting at the desk, the queue, your bed.
You suffer the malaise of the young
whose imaginations collide
with the world’s dull and repetitive ways,
for whom responsibility is a petty bureaucrat
in a cheap gray suit
watching the clock you punch, counting
irretrievable minutes you spend
doing work you cannot love.
Do not despair.
After you’ve done some time
in the slow slog of nickel and dime
your passions, silvery as fishes,
will gather in schools that swell and press
against the dam—
that damn ordinariness
dulling your heart—
and spill themselves brilliant into
the crooked creek of your next adventure,
each carrying in its small body
the germ of an idea, yours
Words are making the news again–this time, the list of seven words that the Centers for Disease Control has been told may make the Center’s research proposals less likely to be approved by the government’s budgeting agencies and which should be avoided in reports to Congress.
Futurism and The Washington Post reported on the purported ban, and a CDC official responded to clarify that the words’ negative connotations were discussed as “part of a suggestion to use words and phrases that ‘might be more likely to win support for the CDC’s budget in the current Congress.’ The idea is that favorable word choice could help ease the budget’s passage through Congress.” Watch your words, scientists!
Words matter. Anyone who has ever written a grant proposal has first of all to learn the appropriate jargon and phrases that the funders expect. Job applicants need to suss out the keywords that a potential employer has submitted to its application software.
Then there are euphemisms–a pernicious variety of jargon that obscures, elides, or otherwise weakens meaning--misleading, mostly, euphemisms take the punch out of a sentence. I heard just this morning the term “fatals” in the description of a train accident: “There were three fatals and numerous injuries we haven’t yet accounted for,” said a safety official. Fatals used in this way is a “functional shift” (see Oxford blog). The adjective has become a noun, and the noun has become a euphemism for “deaths.”
Officials may rationalize that language used this way softens the blow somehow. I see it as another method of obfuscating fact and in particular, minimizing or hiding death. Deaths are too real, too weighty; the fact of death is a thing we would rather deny. Just as we might deny that there are vulnerable populations in our citizenry. Or that the scientific method requires evidence.
Today, another draft of another poem, also recent. Next, I think I’ll move to older work…material that I haven’t submitted for publication (or that I have submitted but has not been accepted). For now, though–this recent, perhaps too-fresh, lament.
~ ~ ~
The Work of the Body as It Ceases
Before we know ourselves
the body exerts itself, pulses,
lungs open into breath
blood sings with that air.
Unless there is ache
or ecstasy, the body labors
unnoticed while we tend
to other forms of work.
Look, now, at the last days
when the reliable diligence
of heart, lungs, kidneys halts
under strain the body can’t abide.
The throat cannot do its job
though body needs sustenance
and consciousness yearns
to say something unconveyable.
There is work always.
The long labor of maintenance
which, being humble, produces
no outcome except living.
The body’s nothing if not persistent
even as it dies, as vision narrows
and breathing weakens.
Those lively nerves? They settle.
Slowing is also work, as is
decay: work of a new sort
to which the workhorse body
can adapt in the quiet room
where those who loved the body
during its years of industry
do the work of mourning
which does not ever cease.
With some encouragement from friends and colleagues, and with some trepidation, I am posting for the next few weeks some unfinished poem drafts and some poems from my Red Queen Hypothesis manuscript. That’s the plan, anyway. Plans, especially creative writing plans, seem often to go awry.
Given that my last two posts concern how we tell stories and what interrupts us from our narratives, I present herewith a draft of a poem concerning just that. I experiment here with gaps in form; I think of erasure poems (see Dave Bonta’s erasure poems on Via Negativa or Tracy K. Smith’s “Declaration”) though this is not one–the “erasure” here is internal, a series of neurological gaps and stutters.
I don’t know if the poem works as is, could use more tweaking and re-arrangement, or is so confusing as to be far off-base. Perhaps that depends upon the reader.
Autumn is always too early.
The peonies are still blooming, bees
are still working out ideal states,
and the cold bayonets of autumn
suddenly glint in the fields and the wind
What is its origin? Why should it destroy
dreams, arbors, memories?
The alien enters the hushed woods,
anger advancing, insinuating plague;
woodsmoke, the raucous howls
Autumn rips away leaves, names,
fruit, it covers the borders and paths,
extinguishes lamps and tapers; young
autumn, lips purpled, embraces
mortal creatures, stealing
Sap flows, sacrificed blood,
wine, oil, wild rivers,
yellow rivers swollen with corpses,
the curse flowing on: mud, lava, avalanche,
Breathless autumn, racing, blue
knives glinting in her glance.
She scythes names like herbs with her keen
sickle, merciless in her blaze
and her breath. Anonymous letter, terror,
If the autumn of 2017 seems a bit more menacing than usual to some of us, there is reason for it. In Zagajewski’s poem, the season rips, extinguishes, and is merciless, personified as a raging “she,” hoisting bayonets, who embraces creatures and steals away their very breath. The imagery in this piece hurts–that penultimate stanza–and the anonymity of the letter, terror, that closes the poem leaves me rattled and uneasy.
Just for the record, I do not usually think of Fall in this way. I like the season’s inconsistent path toward Winter, its occasional tarrying, its rain, its oddly warm days, its early-morning frosts. Into every lifetime there come little eras of discomfort and fear, however; and it has been a challenge to see this autumn in quite the diffused and orange-tinted light of certain delightful autumns past. Today, I went searching for a poem to recognize the season, perhaps to comfort myself. I found this one, and despite its harrowing tone (or perhaps because of its attitude), I felt spoken to.
Much has been claimed about the healing power of poetry. Not all poems are healing sorts, however. Sometimes what speaks to the reader is not a small miracle of personal spiritual healing but a set of words and images that embody an internal understanding of an entirely different kind–a poem that acknowledges the fears we have, or that captures our rage, or our sorrow–a poem that says to the reader: “You, too, are human, and this may be a shared feeling between us, strangers that we are.”
In my little valley, Fall 2017 has not been early in the meteorological sense; the days have been summer-hot and often humid. Even the nights have been warm. Despite the lack of cold glancing scythes, I do find myself asking questions not unlike those the poet poses in his second stanza. Why should it, or we, or one among us, destroy and scatter and spread metaphorical or actual plague?
I do not have an answer, nor does Zagajewski. But I have this poem, which touches me with its humanity, its recognition that crying children everywhere ask “why?” And I know the poem is not “about” autumn, despite the title.
Also for the record, this poem can be found here and also in Zagajewski’s book, Without End: New and Selected Poems. [Copyright © 2002 by Adam Zagajewski. Used by permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux, LLC, http://us.macmillan.com/fsg. All rights reserved.]