might wake ‘tween gold silken
sheets to find a bloody horse head
might wake ‘tween gold silken
sheets to find a bloody horse head
I used to come across the word of the day, “moue,” pretty often back when I was reading Victorian fiction. I never looked it up. I guess, even as a kid reading Little Women, I understood its meaning in a general sense. It seemed to happen to the faces of the female characters when they didn’t get their way. In Little Women Amy was alway “pulling a moue” when she didn’t get her way. Of course Beth, the good sister, NEVER “pulled a moue” though she had more to endure than the other three sisters. It was an object lesson in putting a brave face on things. The message came through pretty clearly that it was far more noble (and therefore better) to be like Beth than to be like Amy.
I like Victorian fiction or maybe, more accurately, 19th century fiction. I’m not sure that we’ve ever done better in English than the novels of Thomas Hardy and Charles Dickens. This was also era in which American fiction began to blossom and that, right there, is pretty amazing. Mark Twain, James Fenimore Cooper, and a plethora (since I’m writing about literature just like an English teacher) of female (they were called that back in the day) writers whose names have been forgotten but whose books were read more than those by male writers. Whatever the natal genitalia of the writers, the 19th century gave us great stories with three-dimensional characters involving themselves in realistic and complicated situations.
Wow. I remember feeling bereft the day I finished the last of the Thomas Hardy novels from the library at the University of Colorado. At that very time I was working on my senior paper which was about Sarah Josepha Hale and Godey’s Lady’s Book, a project that later evolved into my thesis.
In the process of writing my thesis I learned that when we look at history we don’t see very much. We see less of the iceberg than did the captain and crew of the Titanic.
My first encounter with Mrs. Hale or the 19th century happened when I was a little girl, so little that when I sat on a sofa my legs still stuck out straight in front of me. My dad had acquired a book at the University of Denver library book sale and he brought it home for me. It was A Poet’s Offering one of the coffee table books of the 19th century, a compilation of poetry organized according to topic.
Of course I couldn’t read it, but I could look at the beautiful engravings.
Immediately inside the embossed cardboard cover was an engraving of the woman who’d sponsored the compilation, Sarah Josepha Hale.
I have imagined the book being given as a Christmas gift back in 1850 and sitting on a velvet or lace covered table, thumbed through on rainy days and used as a reference in times when a certain thought, a certain poetic line, could turn around the course of a day. Most of the names in this book would be unfamiliar to people alive today, but they were famous in their time. Women were always “Mrs. Whoever” unless they were unmarried and then, chances are, they wrote under a nom de plume.
I gave the book my dad gave me to a Chinese professor from the University of Chengdu. I have a partial copy here that I scored on Etsy some time ago. He was struggling to compile a poetic lexicon of English and that’s essentially what A Poet’s Offering is. We knew each other in Denver the year after I had returned from China. He was a sweet, intelligent, kind and sincere man who’d been redeemed from the shit he’d endured in the Cultural Revolution and put at the head of an English department, then, miracle of miracles (to him) sent to America to study.
Frost took Tu Fu early Tuesday morning even even though I had covered him (and the others). Li Bai had some damage, but not bad, Li Ho and Bai Juyi suffered nothing. Scarlet Emperor Beans ARE very susceptible to frost. I cut Tu Fu down to the original little 6 inch plant I set in the ground in June. It will go, too.
A few more beans were ready to harvest for next year.
In other climes Scarlet Emperor Beans are perennials, but not in this high valley. In other places, they’re just fodder for cows. After cutting him down yesterday, I pulled the tomatoes. A couple of days ago I cleared up a small bed and planted 16 Leper Bells — fritillaria that’s more often called “Snakes Head.” They don’t do great here, either, but…
There’s no way to escape the fury of nature, even when that “fury” is as quiet as the settling of frost on a clear September night.
Cows and sheep walk slowly down,
Each villager has shut his wicker gate.
The wind disturbs the clear, moonlit night,
These rivers and hills are not my homeland.
A spring flows from the dark cliff,
Autumn dew drips on the roots.
In the lamp light I sit, white-haired.
Why do the flowers continue to bloom?
For anyone who might be interested in the structure of a Chinese poem, here it is in Chinese with a Pin-yin transcription. (I found a great website if you like Chinese poetry… http://www.chinese-poems.com/
niú yáng xià lái jiǔ
gè jǐ bì chái mén
fēng yuè zì qīng yè
jiāng shān fēi gù yuán
shí quán liú àn bì
cǎo lù dī qiū gēn
tóu bái dēng míng lǐ
hé xū huā jìn fán
From the joints where leaves broke or froze, new vines are emerging ALREADY. I love these beans.
MOON, RAIN, RIVERBANK
Rain road through, now the autumn night is clear
The water wears a patina of gold
and carries a bright jade star.
Heavenly River runs clear and pure,
as gently as before.
Sunset buries the mountains in shadow.
A mirror floats in the deep green void,
its light reflecting the cold, wet dusk,
freezing on the flowers.
FALL RIVER SONG
On Old River Mountain
A huge boulder swept clean
by the blue winds of Heaven
where they have written
in an alphabet of moss
an ancient song.
I was surprised my quilt and pillow were cold,
I see that now the window’s bright again.
Deep in the night, I know the snow is thick,
I sometimes hear the sound as bamboo snaps.
WALKING THROUGH SOUTH MOUNTAIN FIELDS
The autumn wilds bright,
Autumn wind white.
Pool-water deep and clear,
Clouds rise from rocks,
On moss-grown mountains.
cold reds weeping dew,
Colour of graceful crying.
Wilderness fields in October —
Forks of rice.
Torpid fireflies, flying low,
Start across dike-paths.
Water flows from veins of rocks,
Springs drip on sand.
Ghost-lanterns like lacquer lamps
Lighting up pine-flowers.
Freezing temps, the sky silver with snow,
Airborne crystalline promises shimmer.
In the morning light, minute spectra glimmer.
I leash my big white dog and off we go.
Hoar frost on the bare trees’ smallest branches
breaks free and falls on my dog and me.
As we walk beneath the cottonwood trees
Across the snowy field, the fresh snow crunches.
The parallel tracks of Nordic skis shadow
Our path through the brown and golden tones,
Blue shadows, the angled light of winter noon.
Ahead, Mt. Blanca, covered with snow.
I stop, rest my hand on my dog’s warm back, she
leans against my leg, savoring our gelid paradise.
I haven’t tried this since high school. My sophomore English teacher said that if I wanted to be a writer, I needed to learn to write sonnets so I would learn the discipline involved in the effective use of language. I wrote a bunch back then. They really are not easy and I don’t know if he was right nor not, but this was fun. 🙂
As an undergraduate, I met William Butler Yeats, the great Irish poet, in a summer class, Critical Writing, a required class for English majors. I was in summer school to expunge an F in that class I had won honorably in a joust with a fascist, sexist POS professor. In that summer class we were tasked to write five different five-page essays on ONE poem by Yeats. A long poem, which was a little helpful, but it was still a challenge. I chose “The Double Vision of Michael Robartes.”
My professor was of the school that believed in direct reading of poetry, not historical analysis, so we read the poems without reading criticism or extraneous analysis. I didn’t know (and didn’t learn, at that time) anything about the background of the poem. I just read it and wrote about it. A LOT. I ended up LOVING Yeats, so when the option appeared a few years later when I was in graduate school to take a seminar in Yeats, I signed up.
Yeats kind of lost me when, in his poetic career, he and his wife, George (Georgie) began exploring the “occult” side of life, going into trances and doing “automatic writing,” a thing where the spirits come and direct the pen of the person holding it who simply surrenders to what the spirits have written and later gets to read and decode it. Ultimately there were 4000 pages of this done by Yeats and his wife. Many of these poems are “told” or “seen” by a character, Michael Robartes — Yeats but not Yeats.
All this occult stuff led to a few books and more poems based on something that Yeats and his wife saw as a “system” that explained the rise and fall of human culture throughout history. Two gyres — dynamic spirals — spinning in opposite directions. In a general sense, one of the gyres is the culture building, the other is the culture declining.
Many of Yeats’ later poems center on this idea. It turned out the poem about which I wrote five essays (“The Double Vision of Michael Robartes”) “depends” on understanding Yeats’ vision to be completely comprehended. OH WELL.
I don’t buy that. Yeats was a good enough poet that meaning shines through many of these “visionary” poems even without knowing anything about A Vision. Probably the most famous and well-known of these poems is “The Second Coming.” The gyre appears in this immediately:
Turning and turning in the widening gyrehttps://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/43290/the-second-coming
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
He’s describing the decay of a world. When the gyre reaches its widest part, it vanishes. “This figure is true also of history, for the end of an age, which always receives the revelation of the character of the next age, is represented by the coming of one gyre to its place of greatest expansion and of the other to that of its greatest contraction.” Michael Robartes and the Dancer
Only the work of artists and scholars remain from a world when it has reached its fullest point on the gyre and vanishes. Art and scholarship are coded messages from one age to the next.
“Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make,
Of hammered gold and gold enamelling
To keep a drowsy emperor awake;
Or set upon a golden bough to sing
To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.”
William Butler Yeats, “Sailing to Byzantium.”
Two years ago about now I was getting a bleary-eyed view of the “theater” in which my hip would be replaced. It was amazing. Star Trekky, beautiful. They were putting tubes into me and onto me and chatting. “What do you think? That’s the operating table.”
It wasn’t a table at all. It was more like a comfy-vice that would hold me in the ideal position for Dr. Ed to work his hip-replacement magic while making it easy for the anesthetist to keep me under. I loved my doctor. In another reality, we would have been friends.
When I woke up, I was in a recovery room and Lois, my friend, was there — I think. In some respects this is fuzzier in my mind than is the actual surgery. I can’t explain that, other than to say I think we know what’s going on even when we’re anesthetized. We just don’t feel the pain. I have a distinct memory of it going well, laughter and a faint memory of the sound of a bone saw. But, I could be confusing this with some episode of House.
The whole thing was pretty great, actually. Afterward was challenging for a while, but here I am today. Sure, I walk with a limp and am somewhat lopsided, but it’s not Dr. Ed’s fault.
When I was wheeled into my room I was met by a tiny version of Polar Bear Yeti T. Dog whom I dubbed “Little Bear” and soon Little Bear had a dragon I named Francis (after the hospital) to keep her company. I do not know what it is about these effigies of animals that delights humans, but they made me feel better.
The nurses in the orthopedic wing were amazing. Apparently they liked me because they sent me a card with notes thanking me for being so easy to help and fun to be around. “I wish every patient were like you.” Seriously? NOT hurting any more should put EVERYONE in a good mood. One of the best things about joint replacement surgery is that immediately after your joint doesn’t hurt any more.
For the past two years — since the surgery — I — who usually wakes up between 8 and 8:30 — on May 7 I wake up at 5:30 ready to go. I suppose it’s some kind of physical commemoration of that day.
I promised my Scarlet Emperor Bean, Li Ho, the opportunity to share one of his poems. I think this is a good moment for that. It’s a different kind of poem than that written by his contemporaries, Li Bai and Tu Fu. This poem struck me really hard when I first read it back in my 20s when I knew I was a writer but I didn’t know what I had to say or would have to say. At that time I just wrote. I “raged at the wall” as I “carved my questions to Heaven.” The final image is still, to me, a profound paradox. Without the wall, there would be nothing on which to carve the questions and yet the wall is a barrier.
Don’t Go Out of that Door
Heaven is dark
Earth is secret,
The nine-headed monster eats our souls,
Frosts and snows snap our bones.
Incited dogs snarl, sniff around us,
And lick their paws, partial to the smell of the virtuous,
‘Till the end of all afflictions, when God sends his chariot to fetch us,
And the sword starred with jewels and the yoke of yellow gold.
I straddle my horse, but there is no way back,
On the lake which swamped Li-yang the waves are huge as mountains
Deadly dragons stare at me, jostle the metal wheels,
Lions and chimaeras spit from slavering mouths.
Pao Chiao parted the ferns and forever closed his eyes,
Yen Hui at twenty-nine was white at the temples;
Not that Yen Hui had thinning blood,
Nor that Pao Chiao had offended heaven.
Heaven dreaded the time when teeth would rend and gnaw them,
For this and no other reason made it so.
Plain though it is, I fear that still you doubt me.
Witness the man who raged at the wall as he carved his questions to Heaven!
Teddy and I headed out for the Refuge because it’s a cool, sunny day. You still can’t see much “spring” out there, though the five or six trees are leafing out. I was mildly (I think they know what they’re doing) concerned about “my” geese having vanished, but no, they’re still there and it would seem they have nests. They fascinate Teddy. He really DOES believe they are his job. I got to watch a red-tail hawk for a long time. Antics like that really mess with my miles per hour stats.
We really prefer going out at midday which is great 3 out of the 4 seasons, but not necessarily in summer…
When I got home, it was Christmas. There was an immense City of Monte Vista truck in my alley and two guys with chain saws cutting down the monster lilac hedge that lines my yard and the alley. I went over to talk to them and said, “Is this Christmas?” That hedge is a huge pain for me every year. I’m out there cutting it back from the alley with hand tools. It’s very hard work. Then there’s the problem of having the branches hauled away.
The two young guys with the 24 inch chain saws laughed and then kept cutting. Later I went out and saw two older guys with a huge tractor with a front shovel. They were picking up the branches and taking them to a truck parked on the street by the golf course.
Lilacs are beautiful and smell amazing, but once that’s over they are a menace to life on this planet. They REALLY like it here, too. It’s hard to tell them from weeds. They send their shoots out hoping to colonize the entire San Luis Valley starting with my yard…
Anyway, things are fine at the Refuge. We welcomed a car propelled by a grandpa with a kid in the back. More action than we’ve seen there in weeks. It was a little strange.
In plant news, the pumpkins are blooming which I think is very ill advised. The cherry tomatoes are growing and the Roma tomatoes are germinating. The Scarlet Emperor Beans are reaching sublimely to the sun. I’m going to have to plant this stuff soon.
Since, yesterday, I shared a poem by Tu Fu (for whom one of the beans is named), I’ll share a poem now by his good friend, Li Bai for whom another of the beans is named. These two friends were often separated by hundreds of miles and corresponded in poems. It’s one of my all time favorite poems and the partner to the poem I posted yesterday. Tomorrow I’ll share a poem by Li Ho, the last of the beans. He’s a little different and the poem I will share is my #1 favorite poem. 🙂
MEDITATION ON Ching-ting Mountain
The birds have vanished down the sky.
Now the last cloud drains away.
We sit together, the mountain and I
until only the mountain remains.
Tu Fu’s answer (from yesterday’s post)
I can’t bear a journey to the village–
I’m too contented here
I call my son to close the wooden gate.
Thick wine drunk in quiet woods, green moss,
jade gray water under April winds–
and beyond, the simmering dusk of the wild.
I’m enjoying the slow convergence of dawn with my waking up time. Pretty soon we’ll be “at one.” Just in time, too, because it will be “colder than a well digger’s ass,” and I won’t be able to open the back door and leave it open for the dogs until I get up a couple of hours later. That door opens to the laundry room, and the pipes would freeze. Yep. That’s how things are out here in the Back of Beyond.
Dawn has labored long as a metaphor. One of the coolest (long…) moments in my undergraduate life was reading The Odyssey in Homeric Greek and one of the coolest moments of that was learning to read, “Rosy fingered dawn.” Back in those days, when poetry was recited not read, little devices — like repetition — added music to the recital and probably made the long poems easier to remember. I honestly cannot see the dawn without, in my mind, thinking, “Rohodoctulous hos.” (ῥοδοδάκτυλος Ἠώς) Dawn — Aurora — wore a saffron robe, had golden arms and red fingers.
My two favorite literary dawn bits are in Thoreau’s Walden.
“We must learn to reawaken and keep ourselves awake, not by mechanical aids, but by an infinite expectation of the dawn, which does not forsake us in our soundest sleep.”
“All memorable events, I should say, transpire in morning time and in a morning atmosphere. The Vedas say, “All intelligences awake with the morning.” Poetry and art, and the fairest and most memorable of the actions of men, date from such an hour. All poets and heroes…are the children of Aurora… To him whose elastic and vigorous thought keeps pace with the sun, the day is a perpetual morning. It matters not what the clocks say or the attitudes and labors of men. Morning is when I am awake and there is a dawn in me.”
Meanwhile, here in Colorado, the San Luis Valley is an island of sunshine on this Thursday morning while most of the state is enduring snow, high winds and frigid temperatures. The very cold temps will arrive here tonight. So, yesterday I winterized the front garden with the leaves that have already fallen from the trees in front of my house. My corner of the world — on the map above — shows dry roads (beige lines) and clear skies while all around? Purple (high wind) and blue (snow and ice). Highways and mountain passes have closed (red dots), people are skidding right and left. No one is EVER ready for this. Luckily, it will only last three days…for now.
“Percussus sum sicut foenum, et aruit cor meum.” —Ps. ci.
But my bereavement-pain
It cannot bring again:
Twice no one dies.
But, since it once hath been,
No more that severing scene
Can harrow me.
Birds faint in dread:
I shall not lose old strength
In the lone frost’s black length:
Strength long since fled!
Leaves freeze to dun;
But friends can not turn cold
This season as of old
For him with none.
Tempests may scath;
But love can not make smart
Again this year his heart
Who no heart hath.
Black is night’s cope;
But death will not appal
One who, past doubtings all,
Waits in unhope.
Long long ago in a dormitory not so far away — five hours — I was confronted with this poem. At the time my dad was in a nursing home in Colorado Springs, his life suspended between a reclining wing-backed chair and a coma. Most Fridays I got on the Continental Trailways bus which I caught at the terminal in downtown Denver. Thinking about it, I can still smell the winter air and diesel wafting from the cold garage into the bus terminal waiting room with its chrome-armed benches and light green plastic upholstery from which the original pattern of pale ice cubes remained only on the sides where no one sat. $1.85 to get to Colorado Springs. I always had that, whatever expenses the week brought.
I stepped up the three steps with my little blue suitcase carrying homework and underwear (backpacks hadn’t become “the thing” yet), and handed my ticket to the conductor and took my seat by the window. Sometimes there was someone sitting beside me with stories to tell, often not. I wondered if my boyfriend would meet my bus or my mom. Usually it was my boyfriend, a man I later married, but that’s a subject for a blog post that will remain unwritten.
“Go see your dad,” said my mom when I walked in the front door, as if I needed to be told.
Whatever I found at the nursing home, I stayed. If he were lying in a coma, I did homework. If he were sitting up, we talked. By that time his speech was very garbled and he often used a Ouija board (imagine!) as an alphabet board to spell out the words he wanted to speak. He would point with his finger — spastic though his hands were, frustrating though it was for this short-tempered Irishman — and we would talk, sometimes for hours. He would tell me what to buy my mom to give her for Christmas, birthday, anniversary from him. His gifts to my mom were always something lovely. I would go to the new mall, The Citadel, filled with importance, carrying the checkbook that was our joint checking account, make the purchase and buy a mushy card on which Dad would scrawl what he could of the words, “I love you, Bill.” I always hoped that a gift would fix everything. I wonder if my dad hoped that, too.
Then the day came when I learned once and forever that hope is not enough. That paradoxical human thing without which we cannot live, but which cannot, in itself, keep anything alive, except itself. Hardy’s poem, which had been completely incomprehensible to me when I studied it the year before my father’s death, suddenly made too much sense, but it had a message I’ve retained all my life, “Twice no one dies…” followed by, “
… But death will not appal
One who, past doubtings all,
Waits in unhope.
I spent the next three months pretty much alone at school, avoiding friends, studying, trying to make sense of life without my best friend. My dad’s death was a rocket that shot me into a universe none of my peers seemed to inhabit. I could see them from a distance, but I couldn’t hear them.
It took a L–O–N–G time to understand hope, and, again, Thomas Hardy (whose poetry I had in a HUGE book, The Poems of Thomas Hardy, by that time, not just in my even HUGER anthology of Victorian poetry) spoke to me in his poem, “The Darkling Thrush”
I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.
The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.
At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.
So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.
Featured photo: Bus station in Colorado Springs back in the day… My dad had multiple sclerosis, diagnosed when he was 27, died when he was 45. I was 20.