The Ugly Side of Perseverance

Perseverance is one of 13 “attributes” my oldest daughter’s school studies each academic year.

I bring in poems to share each attribute cycle. This attribute I found the perfect poem for last year– and it was perfect because of the story that framed and created it.

Today I found the book that introduced me to the piece (First Loves, edited by Carmela Ciuraru), and began to reread the selection, noticing what I underlined last year:

…Broadsky’s trial in the former Soviet Union condemn[ed] him to forced labor. When asked on what authority he pronounced himself a poet, he had answered that the vocation came from God. Silence followed, and also the sentence.

It was Broadsky, of the stirring conviction in his vocation, who recommended reading the Russian poet Anne Akhmatova.

Anne was a poet “in a time when a poem on a scrap of paper could mean a death sentence.”

…To continue to write, to commit one’s work to faithful friends who were prepared to learn poems by heart and thus preserve them, was only possible if one was convinced of the absolute importance and necessity of poetry.

These are observations from Carolyn Forché, who coined the term, “poetry of witness.”

Knowing that about her, I see clearly the influence of Anna Akhmatova, who lived and wrote through one of the many intense seasons of the former Soviet Union, while her grown son was imprisoned for the crime of having two parents who were poets.

He was only one of many so imprisoned, and many others did all they could to comfort and care for their loved ones while they were locked away.

Anna wrote about the experience:

In the terrible years of the Yezhov terror I spent seventeen months waiting in line outside the prison in Leningrad. One day, somebody in the crowd identified me. Standing behind me was a woman, with lips blue from the cold, who had, of course, never heard me called by name before. Now she started out of the torpor common to us all and asked me in a whisper (everyone whispered there):

“Can you describe this?”

And I said: “I can.”

Then something like a smile passed fleetingly over what had once been her face.

Carolyn Forché (the poet introducing Anna in this book) says, “I knew that the poet’s work was to describe ‘this’ before I knew what ‘this’ was, but that it was indescribable.”

I knew that [Anna’s] I can was courageous and defiant, less an expression of confidence in her ability than an announcement against the triumph of evil.

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Mourning Isn’t Over When the Flowers Wilt

 

Image courtesy of q83 via stock.xchng

This is a recording I made of poems about admiration, love and loss, from a variety of poems and poets: To be of Use by Marge Piercy, A Psalm of Life, by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, A Dirge Without Music by Edna St. Vincent Millay, Perfection Wasted by John Updike, and an excerpt from Four Poems in One by Anne Porter.

I have completed my First-10 speeches for Toastmasters, and am now working on my first “advanced manual,” Interpretive Reading.

I performed this collection of poems at a new Toastmasters group yesterday. The feedback was mixed, kind compliments, and appreciation of how I compiled the cycle, with questions from other people about the point or purpose of poetry and such a “dark” theme: Remembrance, death and loss.

Jay came with me to the meeting, and returned to the questions when we got home.

My first response was to think, Maybe I’m just morbid.

But that didn’t fit my intent or my emotional state. I dug deeper while he tried to help.

“Is it to share at a funeral or memorial service like [name] asked? What’s the application?”

“Mourning doesn’t end when the service does,” I finally said, coming to my understanding as I spoke it.

“I repeat the poems because it is a way of remembering. The people who hear only death and gloom hear what they have ears for, and that’s okay, that’s not up to me, it’s where they’re at. But there is ever-so-much more and better going on than gloom.

“There is grief, because I still grieve. That doesn’t go away for me or anybody. And it’s comforting, somehow, to go back to what you might expect at a service. It still honors them, and comforts me.”

I am the Poet of Reality

I am the poet of reality
I say the earth is not an echo
Nor man an apparition;
But all the things seen are real,
The witness and albic dawn of things equally real
I have split the earth and the hard coal and rocks and the solid bed of the sea
And went down to reconnoitre there a long time,
And bring back a report,
And I understand that those are positive and dense every one
And that what they appear to a child they are
[And that the world is not a joke,
Nor any part of it a sham].

This unfinished poem by Walt Whitman (published in this form in A Book of Luminous Things edited by Czeslaw Milosz) expresses so perfectly my need for the solidity of the physical to mean something.

I do find evidence for the unseen in the seen, and sometimes I think this is why I love so much what I see.

Obscurity has its Advantages

One of which is realistic expectations.

Or, rather, few to none, which works as well.

I’ve gone through cycles of seeking my “brand” or identity, or audience, pouring thought and wistfulness and effort into producing content days at a time.

The closest I’ve gotten to a theme is, “an unexamined life is not worth living.”

Which is overstating it, as quotes will.

When I have fears that I may cease to be
Before my pen has glean’d my teeming brain,
Before high piled books, in charact’ry,
Hold like rich garners the full-ripen’d grain;
When I behold, upon the night’s starr’d face,
Huge cloudy symbols of a high romance,
And think that I may never live to trace
Their shadows, with the magic hand of chance;
And when I feel, fair creature of an hour!
That I shall never look upon thee more,
Never have relish in the faery power
Of unreflecting love!—then on the shore
Of the wide world I stand alone, and think
Till Love and Fame to nothingness do sink.

John Keats (1795–1821)

For now, I more wish to belive that the unexamined life may perhaps be lived better (than examined), but without the benefit of reproduction. And I believe a scientist would say that any outcome, however perfect, is not useful unless it can be reproduced.

While I do not strive to live as a scientist, I do wish to be of use. And I know my deepest need (for an improved life) is not perfection, but consistency.

But, returning to obscurity (we left it for a moment), I think on what is necessary to leave it: nakedness. Utter exposure, whether voluntary or not, is the cost of coming out of invisibility.

It was Edna St. Vincent Millay, I once read, who said, “A person who publishes a book willfully appears before the populace with his pants down. If it is a good book nothing can hurt him. If it is a bad book nothing can help him.”

My friend Becky and I have had (e-mail) conversations over this, the choice about how open to be.  She knows her audience. She has a sense of mission in her writing, and finds both power and purpose in choosing to open some very personal parts of herself.

I have none of those motivators. Much of my fragility and “intimacy” is very self-centered; they are things I want to remember on topics that are close to my heart and so are easier for me to write about.

Or maybe just easier to stay connected long enough to finish.

All my life I have heard about “masks” and “getting rid of masks.” The idea of presenting a false front is despised in all circles, even while (as a culture) we feel more disconnected from one another than ever before.

So people talk publicly about stuff that doesn’t make you blush any more, and shocking announcements are defended effectively.

I tried to explain the phenomenon to my mother (who doesn’t need anything explained to her), and she is simply horrified at the practice. “Why would anybody do that?!” she asks.

I proffered a few of my theories (the attempted explanation part), but she didn’t seem to hear any of them. And I can’t say I blame her. I don’t rightly understand it myself.

But I’m a part of it.

Apparently I’m in the early years of Generation-Y, and attribute it to what you will (I’ve read theories about this too), we are a “real” generation, where authenticity is the key word.

I’m a part of it without even knowing it.

I can’t tell you how many times someone older than me (and not always very much older) will laugh in an embarrassed way at something I just said and respond, “That’s what I love about you, Amy, you’re so real.”

Which, frankly, confuses me, because what else can a Believer be?

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My Last Poem

The third of three poems I’ve written on-purpose.
(First two here.)

~ ~ ~

This is the vastly improved version. Which might indicate the quality of the original.

I realized (maybe) why I never write poetry: I had a start here with a series of images, and my mom had the kids (’cause I’m sick and she gave me the morning to rest).

With those prerequisites I resurrected the idea and gave it a body in this poem.

Just one poem in a chunk of time all to myself (I might have finished a chapter in that same time). Little wonder I don’t do poems in my real-life.

Poetry definitely appeals to me, though. I am hooked on imagery and economy of language.

What’s Wrong

A hand came.  You may or may not
remember.  Inserting a hellish
needle it inoculated you

Against peace, against trust.
Things you now pretend
not to need, because your system
fights them.  You think
you’ve learned to live
without them, and you call this
strength.

Why is your pain
a precious thing?
It’s as natural as Lake
Iliamna
— maybe even as huge—
but it’s as putrid
as old
cream
cheese.

That’s gangrene you’re ignoring
while it can only spread.

You are not so unique; we all know this
agony: a blanketing burn
that makes any touch ungentle.
And as much as I ache
to bring you to the healing hands
you must first agree you need them.

Revising = Reimagining

Maybe every writer should work on poetry once a year– to remind themselves that cutting, even a significant percentage of words and meaningful images that don’t quite fit, will result in a stronger work.

I know for me the exercise was a challenge, but it was an excellent parable.

Once I was free to remove elements that didn’t fit (the original assignment forced me to insert a metaphor that didn’t fit the rest of the images) the whole piece became stronger.

~

With my WIP (work-in-progress) I am currently trying to identify similar segments. Those that exist because (when I wrote them) I thought I needed them and now, especially compared to the strongest pieces, don’t quite fit.

Watching the poem improve was an effective parable, and very motivating, but it’s made me unsure about my current vision/expectation for my novel.

Right now it’s like herding sheep.

That is to say, with the right training I should be able to do it with patience and the expectation that everything will eventually end up where it should go. But not actually having that training (getting it on-the-job) I am feeling an increasing urge to reduce the size of my “flock.”

I don’t think I need to eliminate characters, necessarily, but I’m trying to decide if I need to have less of them doing interesting and significant things.

Fantasy lends itself to sprawling, panoramic, masses-affecting action. Maybe that’s why so many are insanely fat or grow into series.

My immediate desire for simplicity seems less natural/easy to achieve.

So now, instead of writing more from my latest outline, I’m going through what I’ve written (much of it at NaNo speed) and trying to decide what the purpose of each segment is; whether it advances the plot, whether the novel’s better with this action on- or off-stage, etc.

It’s more tedious work, but I trust it will both tighten the end-product and reduce the amount of un-used writing I end up with.

My Poems

Jen F.’s post about the “Secret Handshake” of art (I love that phrase) has inspired me to be brave and throw out a couple of my poems to the world.

Honestly, it didn’t make me think of either of these, but the third poem I wrote in this class (the one I did think of) needs revising before I will bring it into the light– though now that I’m thinking of it again, it probably will.

I was forced to write four poems (of different styles/content) as a part of a creative-writing class I took while pregnant with Melody. I will not protest to anyone that I am a poet, but the images of these (and the third if I can revise it) worked in this format like they never would have in my normal language of story or essay.

One of them apparently did come out as an essay, despite my best intentions to meet the teacher’s expectation of a “Prose poem” (go figure), but these were more acceptable to him and I’ll preface them with my teacher’s comments.

No great reason for this other than it seems to legitimize them somehow.

~

From his response to my 47-page portfolio of the semester’s stronger work (he himself is a poet, so I hope it doesn’t minimize the prose too much that he liked the poems best):

Two of my favorite pieces in the collection happen to be the poems.

They stand up awfully well, I think, with “My First Love” quite nicely capturing spiritual joy— which typically leads to poems that are terribly corny.

Yours isn’t, and the genuine delight apparent in the language and imagery take us, whatever we believe, to a fine place.

“Thoughts While Cleaning…” is considerably more somber, of course, but the arrangement of details is quite smart, and the nature of those details brings us close to the horrors of what happened— even as the way those details are viewed is meant to find distance from those same horrors.

~

 

My First Love

I always thought of the quiet breeze
as God playing with my hair,
and the soft raindrops were his kisses.

I’d turn my face into the wind
and feel
my hair curl behind me.

The warm breath
fit my face
perfectly,
like a strapless dress
that magically stays on.

Then,
as the rain began to fall,
I’d turn my face up to taste it.
Gentle touches over my throat
and lips.

I would begin to dance–
in my young way–
spinning about and lifting
my arms to welcome the divine
caress.

 

~ ~ ~

 

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Love and Imagination

Love

Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
~ Guilty of dust and sin.
But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
~ From my first entrance in,
Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
~ If I lack’d anything.

‘A guest,’ I answer’d, worthy to be here’:
~ Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
‘I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
~ I cannot look on Thee.’
Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
~ ‘Who made the eyes but I?’

‘Truth, Lord: but I have marr’d them: let my shame
~ Go where it doth deserve.’
‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘Who bore the blame?’
~ ‘My dear, then I will serve.’
‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’
~ So I did sit and eat.

George Herbert
(April 3, 1593 – March 3, 1633)

Imagination

There is a dish to hold the sea,
~ A brazier to contain the sun,
A compass for the galaxy,
~ A voice to wake the dead and done!

That minister of ministers,
~ Imagination, gathers up
The undiscovered Universe,
~ Like jewels in a jasper cup.

Its flame can mingle north and south;
~ Its accent with the thunder strive;
The ruddy sentence of its mouth
~ Can make the ancient dead alive.

The mart of power, the fount of will,
~ The form and mold of every star,
The source and bound of good and ill,
~ The key of all the things that are,

Imagination, new and strange
~ In every age, can turn the year;
Can shift the poles and lightly change
~ The mood of men, the world’s career.

John Davidson
(April 11, 1857 – March 23, 1909)

To See the Resurection

I picked up a Shakespeare’s Sonnets last week, and began trying to read them from the beginning. (I’ve never read them before.)

As I waded through the first dozen, I was struck by the recurring plea to the listener to beget. To parent children so that in their image the memory and beauty of the original might be preserved.

One of the maybe five Shakespeare plays I am familiar with (12th Night) has a whole scene built around this theme— Cesario trying to talk the beautiful Lady Olivia into marrying the Duke.

After a while the repetition got old and I gave up, but not before I was struck by this image:

When every private widow well may keep
By children’s eyes her husband’s shape in mind.

And I thought, maybe for the first time, how children were, for many eras and cultures, the only way to honor or remember anyone who had been loved and valued by you.

~ ~ ~

Last night I took my oldest daughter with me to a meeting, and while there I introduced myself to someone as my grandmother’s granddaughter, because she looked as though she vaguely remembered me, and I knew the woman had admired her.

She held the hand I offered as she studied my face, then turned to my daughter.

“And who does she look like?” the woman asked, smiling warmly but staring enough to make my 5-year old uncomfortable (which, admittedly, isn’t much). “Who’s eyes does she have? Are they yours?”

Not really sure how to answer, I said some familiar line about her being a remarkably even mix, not favoring anyone, and we went together into the meeting.

There were other women there who knew my parents or grandparents before me, and a round of recognition of my mannerisms were attributed while I smiled and nodded. This hasn’t happened in a long time, but I don’t mind it.

There was an absolute eruption when *just* after this exchange an new woman walked in and said, “You’re Rev. Dave and Sister Florie’s daughter, aren’t you?”

~

After the meeting I talked with another woman about my Grandmother’s last morning with me, and the first woman, the one I’d introduced myself to, watched us and finally spoke.

“It’s just amazing to watch the children and grandchildren of those you’ve known for years. It’s like your friend is resurrected. Brought back from the dead to stand in front of you.”

And I finally understood the look on her face and felt a tightness in my heart as I wondered if I would wear it one day, too.

So long as you don’t mind a little dying…

The Kingfisher
Mary Oliver

The kingfisher rises out of the black wave
Like a blue flower, in his beak
he carries a single silver leaf. I think this is
The prettiest world— so long as you don’t mind
a little dying, how could there be a day in your whole life
that doesn’t have its splash of happiness?
There are more fish than there are leaves
on a thousand trees, and anyway the kingfisher
wasn’t born to think about it, or anything else.
When the wave snaps shut over his blue head, the water
remains water— hunger is the only story
he has ever heard in his life that he could believe.
I don’t say that he’s right. Neither
do I say he’s wrong. Religiously he swallows the silver leaf
with its broken red river, and with a rough and easy cry
I couldn’t rouse out of my thoughtful body
if my life depended on it, he swings back
over the bright sea to do the same thing, to do it
(as I long to do something, anything) perfectly.

~

This poem I read last night fit (for me) so well with Jen’s post today.

Thank you, Jen, for that story. I laughed so hard I cried! And I’m sorry that series of moments was such a challenge, but I bet you earned the top-anything brag from it. :)

This is the line from that poem describes things perfectly for me just now:

I think this is
The prettiest world— so long as you don’t mind
a little dying, how could there be a day in your whole life
that doesn’t have its splash of happiness?

Blessings on your day! I hope your splash of happiness is flood today. ;)