Dark Spring and the Comfort of Books

In the 80s, no one really acknowledged child abuse unless you showed up with a black eye or an accusation of satanic worship. (Seriously, that was a thing. Google “Satanic Panic.” People served prison time for that nonsense.) It was not until my 30s that I realized how common it is to grow up in an abusive household, with drug addictions present. Consequently, I grew up feeling much different and alienated from other people. However, I was fortunate to have access to books, especially poetry, toward which I naturally gravitated.

Glatz Oszkár (1872-1958): “Reading Girl,” 1918

In college, I read Li-Young Lee’s poem, “This Room and Everything in It,” and felt, not so much satisfied, but enlivened. The speaker describes his failure to tether the ephemeral to the concrete:

useless, useless . . .
your cries are song, my body’s not me . . .
no good . . . my idea
has evaporated . . . your hair is time, your thighs are song . . . 
it had something to do
with death . . . it had something
to do with love.

As a young writer, this poem showed me how language can comfort and how it disappoints. I felt less alone, more rooted. 

Joy Harjo’s description of the “horses who licked razor blades,” in her poem, “She Had Some Horses,” eased me into the understanding that, at least in the privacy of my reading time, my darkness had a safe home in which to tear up the furniture and scream out the window. The last three lines of the poem make room for contrast and the inability to reconcile.

She had some horses she loved.
She had some horses she hated.

These were the same horses.

In a world where I was expected (and often times still am) to remain stable and affable, even during my deepest grief, these words comforted. I could own my complexities. I did not have to beam with resilience or cut myself down in lament, as so often are the roles offered to women, sometimes, in oscillating fashion. 

Dora Maar: “The Conversation”

At this point in my life, I’m in the role of teacher, sharing literature with my college students. My students are wonderful. I love having a job where I get to hear about everything in the world that is new: the latest ideas and shifts in our culture at the very beginning, from brand, new adults. Some of my students have already experienced deep conflicts in life and some have not. For the latter group, I have found it helpful to contextually frame particularly dark poems, such as “The Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock” so that students are not turned off immediately, citing Prufrock’s “problem” as “just some low self-esteem.” Sigh. 

But this semester was different. This semester ended with all of us scattered across the country and communicating online. People are afraid. My students, not surprisingly to me, have remained kind, in their correspondence, and have done amazing jobs completing their work during a time when focus eludes. For their final assignment, they wrote a reflection on the text they most appreciated during the semester. I did not have any concrete notion as to what to expect from this assignment.

When I read the essays, I was moved to find that many of my students found comfort in these texts, especially during this global pandemic. One student wrote that since the “immortal feel” of his college experience has been “ripped” away from him, he relates more to Gilgamesh, and the grief he felt, when Gilgamesh loses his best friend, Enkidu. Another student had, before the pandemic, experienced Petrarch’s “Sonnet 189” as simply “morose,” but now that he has witnessed illness and isolation, reads the poem from a new perspective. Sappho’s poetry resonated with a student who wrote that she now understands how it feels to want to be near someone, knowing that she cannot.

Andrew Wyeth’s “Christina’s World”

Of course, I don’t want my students to suffer; I just know that they inevitably will (or are) and that books can provide a balm. 

The week that our university went online, I learned that my mother had passed away. The weather was beautiful that day, and I sat on my red swing in the backyard and played fetch with my puppy until night came. I have always felt better outside. Maybe it’s because nature never asks you to change or to conceal your emotions. It will just sit with you. 

Shen Zhou, “Poet on a Mountaintop,” ca. 1490-1500

I came upon the poem, “In Perpetual Growth,” by Amy Gerstler, that week. She describes the “human desire for peace” and the hope that “for every hurt / there is a leaf to cure it.” 

I hope that, especially during this time, you find a “cure” that soothes you. 

Click here to read “In Perpetual Spring” and stay safe out there.

The Details of Quarantine

There is much for people to worry about lately: namely the physical and financial health of themselves and their loved ones. Many have been writing about these stresses already, so I am going to excuse myself from adding to the topic. Instead, I’ll write about another aspect of social distancing, amidst the Covid-19 pandemic: attention to detail.

Over the weekend, a couple neighbors played live music from their front porch, and our neighborhood all came out and sat six feet away from each other to hear music and to connect with one another. I am fortunate to live in a friendly neighborhood where it is likely that people will learn the names of your dogs before they recall yours. When we first learned of the spread of the Coronavirus, people slowly began to work from home and stopped driving as much, unless they needed to forage for food. Little by little, a calm settled over our block. It is not unusual to see people walking their dogs through the neighborhood, and waving at one another is just the southern thing to do. But as we made peace with the situation, I started to see it: people’s smiles appeared effortlessly; adults giggled with their children, as they chased them around in their yards; grandparents taught the kids how to ride bikes. Neighbors made an even bigger point to check in with one another, and they began to notice and discuss their surroundings: the warm weather, the birds’ songs, the early spring-blooms.

Red-orange flower opening

As a writer, observing is my job. Honestly, what I’ve observed more and more, in recent years, is the tops of people’s heads. I won’t drone on about cell phone use. I believe technology keeps us just as connected as it does disconnected from one another. However, it seems pretty obvious that technology definitely stands between our senses and our surroundings. 

Is connection to nature really important to anyone but poets and artists? Based on the collective sigh of relief I’ve witnessed over the last couple weeks, in my neighborhood, I think it is. And whether we accept it or not, our bodies are part of nature, and paying attention to our surroundings paves the way to sensing what it feels like to inhabit a body and how that body interacts with its surroundings. 

Our culture revolves around work and status. We all get caught up in it sometimes, wondering if our achievements are good enough, if we’re good enough. But for many people today, those achievements are on hold for a while. What does this time-out mean for our psyches? 

city intersection at night in fast-motion

I am no economist or scientist; I cannot predict how our country will soon change in terms of money and physical health, but I hope that, since most of us are sitting at home right now, we might take this opportunity to begin to notice our surroundings more. Perhaps this quieter time might heal some of the wounds our fast-paced culture has imposed on our notion of self-worth. Humans are social animals, but there is something to be said for self-reflection, a pastime not just reserved for poets.

huge Earth marble between two tall buildings, with people looking up at it
Sebastian Errazuriz’s rendering of blu Marble, which is to be showcased at the Richard Taittinger Gallery on March 13, 2019.

Today, I leave you with Billy Collins’ poem, “Tuesday, June 4, 1991,” which describes the speaker feeling like a “secretary to the morning,” as he writes down all the details of his surroundings. The ending of this poem includes my favorite description of dawn that I’ve read in a poem.

I hope that you are all hanging in there. I know many people cannot stay at home and are directly confronted by this virus, either as healthcare workers or as employees at grocery stores and such. We appreciate you, and I hope that you, too, can find time in the future to rest and reflect.

Tuesday, June 4, 1991 

By Billy Collins

By the time I get myself out of bed, my wife has left
the house to take her botany final and the painter
has arrived in his van and is already painting
the columns of the front porch white and the decking gray.

It is early June, a breezy and sun-riddled Tuesday
that would quickly be forgotten were it not for my
writing these few things down as I sit here empty-headed
at the typewriter with a cup of coffee, light and sweet.

I feel like the secretary to the morning whose only
responsibility is to take down its bright, airy dictation
until it’s time to go to lunch with the other girls,
all of us ordering the cottage cheese with half a pear.

This is what stenographers do in courtrooms, too,
alert at their miniature machines taking down every word.
When there is a silence they sit still as I do, waiting
and listening, fingers resting lightly on the keys.

This is also what Samuel Pepys did, jotting down in
private ciphers minor events that would have otherwise
slipped into the dark amnesiac waters of the Thames.
His vigilance finally paid off when London caught fire

as mine does when the painter comes in for coffee
and says how much he likes this slow vocal rendition
of “You Don’t Know What Love Is” and I figure I will
make him a tape when he goes back to his brushes and pails.

Under the music I can hear the rush of cars and trucks
on the highway and every so often the new kitten, Felix,
hops into my lap and watches my fingers drumming out
a running record of this particular June Tuesday

as it unrolls before my eyes, a long intricate carpet
that I am walking on slowly with my head bowed
knowing that it is leading me to the quiet shrine
of the afternoon and the melancholy candles of evening.

If I look up, I see out the window the white stars
of clematis climbing a ladder of strings, a woodpile,
a stack of faded bricks, a small green garden of herbs,
things you would expect to find outside a window,

all written down now and placed in the setting
of a stanza as unalterably as they are seated
in their chairs in the ontological rooms of the world.
Yes, this is the kind of job I could succeed in,

an unpaid but contented amanuensis whose hands
are two birds fluttering on the lettered keys,
whose eyes see sunlight splashing through the leaves,
and the bright pink asterisks of honeysuckle

and the piano at the other end of this room with
its small vase of faded flowers and its empty bench.
So convinced am I that I have found my vocation,
tomorrow I will begin my chronicling earlier, at dawn,

a time when hangmen and farmers are up and doing,
when men holding pistols stand in a field back to back.
It is the time the ancients imagined in robes, as Eros
or Aurora, who would leave her sleeping husband in bed,

not to take her botany final, but to pull the sun,
her brother, over the horizon’s brilliant rim,
her four-horse chariot aimed at the zenith of the sky.
But tomorrow, dawn will come the way I picture her,

barefoot and disheveled, standing outside my window
in one of the fragile cotton dresses of the poor.
She will look in at me with her thin arms extended,
offering a handful of birdsong and a small cup of light.

 

Featured Photo

Sebastian Errazuriz’s “blu Marble”