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 Marriage of Light and Dark

Outside my dorm window, in the mid-1990s, the walnut trees lined Russell Blvd, the main drag in Davis, California. When I had an early class, I would watch hundreds of crows expand and stretch their wings at sunrise. Clumped on trees, they looked like large, dark flowers blossoming before they elegantly glided into pink sky or congregated on the sidewalk to squawk at each other. At sunset, they would gather again on the trees and curl into tight balls. 

Depending on the folklore, crows have been described as good luck, bad luck, harbingers of death, helpful on the battlefield, or even gossipy. While I like a good animal lore story, one of the most interesting things I’ve heard about crows is scientific: they apparently remember faces really well and can hold a grudge! (There are many articles and studies that can be found on this topic just by Googling “crows remember.”) Also, they apparently feel attracted to shiny things, even if it’s garbage. I once saw a crow pinch a bit of glinting aluminum foil in its beak.

Crows congregating on tree against blue sky with white clouds.

Having grown up near Los Angeles, I could tell you much about artificial shine. I’ve never looked it up, but I sometimes wonder if LA is where tooth whitener was invented. I heard someone from Europe say once that, in America, people look at you funny if you don’t smile at them, and in Europe, they look at you funny if you do. I don’t know if I’ve met a fellow, American woman who has not, in fact, been told to “smile” by some random man or expected to grin through pain, lest she be labeled “bitchy.” Even recently, I was told by a co-worker that she could not imagine that I could ever get angry about anything. I honestly can’t even picture that scenario. Even Mickey Mouse got pissed off sometimes. I believe that demanding cheer, and that a fellow human being shrink to a flat character, is a form of objectification. It indicates the objectifier’s belief that it is another person’s purpose to delight, with smiles and joy, even when she’s just trying to find a ripe avocado at the supermarket. 

Of course, on the flip side, some believe that cheerful people are as such because they lack awareness of the horrible things that happen in the world. People who wear rose-colored glasses cannot see the whole picture because they’ve filtered out the darkness. While I agree with the latter, I’d add that true happiness shifts and actually requires great focus on the light, as well as an understanding of darkness. After all, it is just as shortsighted to look at life through a darkly-clouded lens. Just as much truth is obscured.

Artwork of woman with pink roses in her eyes.
Concentration #11: “rose-colored”

Maybe that’s why I like the image of the intelligent, dark crow, hunting for glitter where ever it may be. I’m not sure anyone can truly appreciate the bright points of life without knowing something of its opposite, and I’ve never minded my darkness: it’s where creation begins. While the benefits of light are fairly obvious, darkness can evoke empathy, self-reflection, compassion, and appreciation. 

Two women face each other, shrouded (one in black, one in white) wearing minimalist, pointy crowns by the ocean..
Daniel Vazquez “Sirens” Photo series

Today, I’m including Joy Harjo’s “The Path to the Milky Way Leads Through Los Angeles,” a poem that contrasts nature (and perhaps, the nature of existence) with the emptiness of city life. I think Tinseltown is an easy target when it comes to exposing shallowness, but I’ve always seen Los Angeles in this poem as a symbol of humanity’s growing pains. We’ve expanded technologically but have not caught up emotionally. We have so many options for ways to live out our physical lives, but we’ve lost touch with our important animal instincts and spiritual intuition. 

My favorite line in the poem is “The shimmer of gods.” I’ve been a big fan of Harjo since graduate school, and in this poem, I particularly like how she plays with tone at the end:

“So what are we doing here I ask the crow parading on the ledge of falling that hangs over this precarious city?
Crow just laughs and says wait, wait and see and I am waiting and not seeing anything, not just yet.
But like crow I collect the shine of anything beautiful I can find.” 

If she had ended with “I am waiting and not seeing anything,” the tone would feel as lost and empty as Los Angeles. If she had ended with “not just yet,” there would have been some hope that the speaker may possibly find the meaning of existence. But I like that she ended with the image of the speaker mimicking the crow and collecting “the shine of anything beautiful” she can find. This ending marries the hope of finding life’s meaning with one optimistic way to cope in the meantime.

(Note: Word Press is not cooperating with the line lengths of this poem, so I have included an image of it below. If you cannot read it, the poem can also be found on Genius; although they, too, appear to have had formatting issues!)

from: A Map to the Next World, Norton. 2000

Featured Image: Jane Cameron Photography