Poems of Despair

June 2, 2020

Yesterday I did a few things to try to make myself feel better while my country is on fire in the midst of a pandemic. I worked out–on facetime–with my trainer. Then I went for a walk–sunshine, blue sky, beautiful blooming things. I was listening to an early Joan Baez album, nothing political, folk songs about love gone wrong. But then she hit a few piercing high notes, and I started to weep. And there was no solace–not in the blue sky, nor the poppies nor the peonies, not in the wisteria vines nor the clematis draped over fences. There was no solace anywhere. And when I said so later to friends they all offered bits of hope–things are about to change, wait until fall, it’s bound to get better. Everything sounded like tired bromides. When I refused to be cheered one said, “Well, I’ll leave you to your despair.” And I thought, yes, please. There are times when we need to just sit with it, and with its cousins grief and helpless rage. When I read poems written in the midst of despair it’s as if an understanding stranger is sitting with me for as long as I need. Maybe some of these will do that for you. And I’d be grateful if you want to add your own suggestions.

 

#340

I felt a Funeral, in my Brain,

And Mourners to and fro

Kept treading – treading – till it seemed

That Sense was breaking through –

 

And when they all were seated,

A Service, like a Drum –

Kept beating – beating – till I thought

My mind was going numb –

 

And then I heard them lift a Box

And creak across my Soul

With those same Boots of Lead, again,

Then Space – began to toll,

 

As all the Heavens were a Bell,

And Being, but an Ear,

And I, and Silence, some strange Race,

Wrecked, solitary, here –

 

And then a Plank in Reason, broke,

And I dropped down, and down –

And hit a World, at every plunge,

And Finished knowing – then –

Emily Dickinson

*

 

ASPEN TREE

Aspen Tree, your leaves glance white into the dark.
My mother’s hair was never white.

Dandelion, so green is the Ukraine.
My yellow-haired mother did not come home.

Rain cloud, above the well do you hover?
My quiet mother weeps for everyone.

Round star, you wind the golden loop.
My mother’s heart was ripped by lead.

Oaken door, who lifted you off your hinges?
My gentle mother cannot return.

Paul Celan

*

 

SHEEP IN FOG

The hills step off into whiteness.
People or stars
Regard me sadly, I disappoint them.

The train leaves a line of breath.
O slow
Horse the colour of rust,

Hooves, dolorous bells –
All morning the
Morning has been blackening,

A flower left out.
My bones hold a stillness, the far
Fields melt my heart.

They threaten
To let me through to a heaven
Starless and fatherless, a dark water.

Sylvia Plath

*

CHARLOTTESVILLE WINTER

Tomorrow is history, lead singer of nothing;

unfurnished spirit, chair

selected from the curb–

little manual on

my desk, the oven door.

Franz Wright

*

SMALL PRAYER

Change, move, dead clock, that this fresh day

May break with dazzling light to these sick eyes.

Burn, glare, old sun, so long unseen,

That time may find its sound again, and cleanse

Whatever it is that a wound remembers

After the healing ends.

Weldon Kees

 

 

Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Kyrie

May 15, 2020

Hello there. The Poetry Conversation has been taking a long break, but it’s back now. This post is about a gorgeous book of poems, Ellen Bryan Voigt’s Kyrie, published by Norton in 1995. I went back to it recently because the poems are set during the 1918-19 influenza epidemic, which killed 50 million people worldwide and 675,000 in this country–more than the number killed in the Civil War. Its deadliness was intensified by the fact that it began during WW I, so soldiers spread it worldwide and also brought it back home with them. The poems in the book, all untitled sonnet variations, are spoken by a cast of characters affected by the pandemic, with a few spoken by a third person narrator. Many of the characters are connected–family and neighbors–and there’s also a soldier writing to his schoolteacher fiancée, who speaks this poem:

All day, one room: me, and the cherubim
with their wet kisses. Without quarantines,
who knew what was happening at home—
was someone put to bed, had someone died?
The paper said how dangerous, they coughed
and snuffed in their double desks, facing me—
they sneezed and spit on books we passed around
and on the boots I tied, retied, barely
out of school myself, Price at the front—
they smeared their lunch, they had no handkerchiefs,
no fresh water to wash my hands—when the youngest
started to cry, flushed and scared,
I just couldn’t touch her, I let her cry.
Their teacher, and I let them cry.

The book is heartbreaking, beautiful, frightening, completely unsentimental. The germ for it began with stories told by Voigt’s father, whose own mother died during the pandemic when he was just eight years old. You can watch her describe that and other details about how the book was shaped in a terrific presentation in a Voices in Remembrance Series on the 1918 epidemic, held in 2018 at the UVA Medical Center. The presentation is led by poet Marianne Boruch, who introduces the poems and provides a context. The sound quality is poor for her part–just turn on the captions.

STANLEY PLUMLY

April 17, 2019

STANLEY PLUMLY, who died last week at 79, was one of my first poetry teachers in graduate school.  He taught workshops of course, but the class that had the most impact was a seminar, Long Poems and Poem Sequences.  We read many published examples, including Robert Penn Warren’s Audubon and Robert Hass’s “Songs to Survive the Summer,” from his second book, Praise. We discussed those poems in class, but were also writing our own versions.  Doing that changed the way I wrote.  Until then, I had assumed I would write one poem about my grandmother and one about evolution, one about New England, and one about art.  I wrote slowly, a line at a time squeezed out like toothpaste and then fretted over, before I went on to the next.  Working on a group of poems, I realized that I had just a few obsessions I would write about over and over, that one poem led to another, and that I needed to get down the arc of thought and feeling before it faded–I could go back to the details later.

Stan was also the first one to encourage me to send my poems out and to suggest specific places.  I believe his recommendations were behind the quick acceptance of my first two books.

The deepest lesson I took away from watching him and my other teachers was that being a poet goes beyond writing poems–though that was the written evidence–that it’s a way of living in and moving through the world.  It’s not just something you do, but something you are.  Stan’s absorption in and devotion to poetry were a model of what I aspired to.

He was, of course, a wonderful poet, with more than a dozen collections.  He also published a beautiful prose book, Posthumous Keats, An Intimiate Biography, about the poet he loved best; and The Immortal Evening: A Legendary Dinner with Keats, Wordsworth, and Lamb.  Both of these are as vividly written as novels, and allow us to eavesdrop on these moments and figures from the past, to see them up close.

The book of his poems I know best is still Out-of-the-Body Travel, published by Ecco Press in 1977.  These were the first poems of his I knew, and I read them over and over.  Two favorites: “The Iron Lung,” a persona poem written as someone who has polio and must live in that little tube forever–but it intertwines his own life with that character’s life so that every line is about two things at once, a shimmering metaphor.  Another is “The Tree,” that layers images like an anatomy textbook’s transparencies: actual tree, genealogical tree, cauliflower, the hand, the brain.

The other poem here, “Wrong Side of the River,” is from the same book.  I’ve always loved the haunting scene, the unexplained mystery of it.  But when I read it right after I learned of his death, it too revealed more layers.

 

THE TREE

 

It looked like oak, white oak, oak of the oceans,

oak of the Lord, live oak, oak if a boy could choose.

The names, like ganglia, were the leaves, flesh

 

of our fathers.  So Sundays I would stand

on a chair and trace, as on a county map,

back to the beginnings of cousins,

 

nomenclature.  This branch, this root…

I could feel the weight of my body take hold,

toe in.  I could see the same shape in my hand.

 

And if from the floor it looked like a cauliflower,

dried, dusted, pieced back together, paper–

my bad eyes awed by the detailed dead and named–

 

it was the stalk of the spine as it culminates at the brain,

a drawing I had seen in a book about the body, each leaf

inlaid until the man’s whole back, root and stem, was veins.

 

 

 

WRONG SIDE OF THE RIVER

 

I watched you on the wrong side

of the river, waving.  You were trying

to tell me something.  You used both hands

and sort of ran back and forth,

as if to say look behind you, look out

behind you.  I wanted to wave back.

But you began shouting and I didn’t

want you to think I understood.

So I did nothing but stand still,

thinking that’s what to do on the wrong side

of the river.  After a while you did too.

We stood like that for a long time.  Then

I raised a hand, as if to be called on,

and you raised a hand, as if to the same question.

 

W. S. Merwin

March 15, 2019

William Merwin was one of my first poetry heroes. I loved his poems and he seemed to me a model of a life devoted to poetry. I also admired the fact that half of his published work is translation of other poets into English–an invaluable gift. He had the equivalent of perfect pitch for language, so that when he began to write unpunctuated poems, and then poems with caesuras, they weren’t hard to follow. The absence of visual clues simply means you have to lean in and listen more closely. One of my favorites is “Strawberries,” in which the speaker describes a vision after his father’s death, one that includes a boy driving a wagon loaded with strawberries, and then a dream when he finally falls asleep. Near the end of the poem he wakes from the dream:

up in the morning       I stopped on the stairs
my mother was awake     already and asked me
if I wanted a shower       before breakfast
and for breakfast she said        we have strawberries

And this opening of the poem “Yesterday,” a dialogue between two men talking about their fathers that could be an opera duet, music made of words and white space:

My friend says I was not a good son
you understand
I say yes I understand

he says I did not go
to see my parents very often you know
and I say yes I know

even when I was living in the same city he says
maybe I would go there once
a month or maybe even less
I say oh yes

he says the last time I went to see my father
I say the last time I saw my father….

Another favorite is “Fly,” featured on this blog June 21, 2018.

I was lucky enough to know Merwin a little. I first met him in the early seventies when he came to Boulder, Colorado, to stay with the poet Bill Matthews. I opened the door one day, and there he was standing on the step, smiling, his face surrounded by dark curls. He had a small cloth bag slung over his shoulder, everything he’d brought with him. He was smart, kind, funny, supportive. Over the years we had some lovely conversations. I was delighted when I met Paula, who was a loving companion but didn’t take any guff. I’m glad they had so many years together.

He had a beautiful reading voice, hypnotic. I have it on vinyl, tape, and cd, and I’m sure you can find it all over youtube. I’m going to be going back to favorites, and to poems I haven’t read (I joked that he could write faster than I could read), but right now I’m inevitably hearing his beautiful poem “For the Anniversary of my Death.” The first time I read it I thought, “Oh! Why did I never think of that?” Because I’m not W. S. Merwin. Please share your memories and favorite poems here.

FOR THE ANNIVERSARY OF MY DEATH

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day
When the last fires will wave to me
And the silence will set out
Tireless traveler
Like the beam of a lightless star

Then I will no longer
Find myself in life as in a strange garment
Surprised at the earth
And the love of one woman
And the shamelessness of men
As today writing after three days of rain
Hearing the wren sing and the falling cease
And bowing not knowing to what

Ilya Kaminsky’s Deaf Republic

March 10, 2019

That Republic? It’s ours. And his. And so many others. Kaminsky’s stunning follow-up to Dancing in Odessa, consists of a two-act play in poems set in another country, framed by a first and last poem set in this one. I believe great art changes us–not by comforting us, but by challenging us, and sometimes by devastating us. When I sat down with Deaf Republic last weekend I read it cover to cover, though I hadn’t intended to. I couldn’t stop, despite how painful it was. And once I’d finished I didn’t know what to do with myself. I couldn’t sit still, couldn’t sleep. I thought of Beckett: “…you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on. You’re on earth. There’s no cure for that.” I felt utterly changed, and yet I knew at the same time that nothing would change, that we humans don’t much, that I don’t. Even so, I think everyone should read this book. I’m not going to quote any of it here. Don’t read reviews first, or read about it. Just get it and sit down alone in a quiet room and open it to the first page, then let me know your thoughts and feelings when you come out.