Monday, November 30, 2015


While I was in Minnesota last week, I was able to take a walk through a marsh-dotted wood.  It was a dun-colored world, a world of (to borrow from Thomas Hardy) "neutral tones."  Unseen birds twittered and clucked off in the cattails, or along the floor of the forest.  Grey squirrels crossed the path in front of me, going about their preparations for winter.

     An autumn evening;
Without a cry,
     A crow passes.

Kishū (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), page 345.

Kishū's haiku captures perfectly and beautifully how the world often makes itself known to us:  unexpectedly, and by degrees.  But we mustn't think of the crow as a "symbol" or a "metaphor" for the world's gracious appearance in our life.  As I have noted here before, we need to stop thinking so much. This whole thinking business is highly overrated.

An autumn evening.  A crow passes overhead in silence.  That's it.  Stop right there.

Benjamin Leader, "At Evening Time It Shall Be Light" (1897)

I haven't lived in the land of my birth for nearly fifty years, but the emotional essence of late November days in The Land of 10,000 Lakes still abides within me.  Those days can be dark and empty, but there is an undercurrent of expectation.

                   A Spell Before Winter

After the red leaf and the gold have gone,
Brought down by the wind, then by hammering rain
Bruised and discolored, when October's flame
Goes blue to guttering in the cusp, this land
Sinks deeper into silence, darker into shade.
There is a knowledge in the look of things,
The old hills hunch before the north wind blows.

Now I can see certain simplicities
In the darkening rust and tarnish of the time,
And say over the certain simplicities,
The running water and the standing stone,
The yellow haze of the willow and the black
Smoke of the elm, the silver, silent light
Where suddenly, readying toward nightfall,
The sumac's candelabrum darkly flames.
And I speak to you now with the land's voice,
It is the cold, wild land that says to you
A knowledge glimmers in the sleep of things:
The old hills hunch before the north wind blows.

Howard Nemerov, The Next Room of the Dream (University of Chicago Press 1962).

And thus the snow came a few times last week -- a lovely and welcome sight.  We all want to walk out into it.  Everything has changed.

Benjamin Leader, "Autumn in a Surrey Wood" (1902)

I know nothing about how to live.  And I possess no wisdom whatsoever. But, if one lives long enough, one eventually discovers that certain truisms are true.  One is well advised to pay attention to them.  Of course, there are those who think they are superior to these truisms:  "I'm more complex and nuanced than that!"  No, you are not.  You are a human being with a soul. Join the crowd.

As a member of that blessed and miraculous group, here's your first truism: you have no control.  Now you can begin to live.

                           The Consent

Late in November, on a single night
Not even near to freezing, the ginkgo trees
That stand along the walk drop all their leaves
In one consent, and neither to rain nor to wind
But as though to time alone:  the golden and green
Leaves litter the lawn today, that yesterday
Had spread aloft their fluttering fans of light.

What signal from the stars?  What senses took it in?
What in those wooden motives so decided
To strike their leaves, to down their leaves,
Rebellion or surrender?  and if this
Can happen thus, what race shall be exempt?
What use to learn the lessons taught by time,
If a star at any time may tell us:  Now.

Howard Nemerov, The Western Approaches (University of Chicago Press 1975).

Benjamin Leader, "A Worcestershire Farm" (1900)

The tendency to think and think and think goes hand in hand with the illusion of control.  On an autumn evening, a crow passes silently overhead.  A small miracle.  We have no say in the matter.  Our response should be gratitude.

     Fallen leaves
Come flying from elsewhere:
     Autumn is ending.

Masaoka Shiki (translated by R. H. Blyth), in R. H. Blyth, Haiku, Volume 3: Summer-Autumn (Hokuseido Press 1952), p. 355.

Fallen leaves arriving from elsewhere.  What a wonder.

Benjamin Leader, "November" (1884)

Monday, November 23, 2015

Perspective, Part Sixteen: Continuity

I am writing this at twilight on the north shore of Lake Superior.  The water stretches away, like a sea, to the south.  Enough sunlight remains to turn the scattered, oval-shaped clouds out over the lake a pinkish-grey, set against a pale blue background.  The sky on the far horizon is pinkish-grey as well, with a tinge of yellow.  In the distance, small snow squalls move across the lake from north to south, grey curtains of flurries sweeping over the dark water.

Here is how I had thought to begin this post:  "The News of the World has been particularly horrifying recently."  But then I looked out the window.

Yes, the News of the World has been particularly horrifying recently. Witnessing evil at work is always dispiriting.  (Yes, evil.  There is no other word for it.  And any attempt to "explain" or "contextualize" or "excuse" or "justify" it on theological, historical, political, economic, or any other grounds makes one complicit in the evil.)

I looked out the window and I thought of a gift I came across earlier this week:

An Epitaph upon a Young Married Couple,
               Dead and Buried Together

To these, whom Death again did wed,
This grave's their second marriage-bed;
For though the hand of Fate could force,
'Twixt soul and body, a divorce,
It could not sunder man and wife,
'Cause they both lived but one life.
Peace, good reader.  Do not weep.
Peace, the lovers are asleep.
They, sweet turtles, folded lie
In the last knot that love could tie.
And though they lie as they were dead,
Their pillow stone, their sheets of lead,
(Pillow hard, and sheets not warm)
Love made the bed; they'll take no harm;
Let them sleep:  let them sleep on,
Till this stormy night be gone,
And the eternal morrow dawn;
Then the curtains will be drawn
And they wake into a light,
Whose day shall never die in night.

Richard Crashaw, Delights of the Muses (1648).  A side-note:  the final line has an alternative reading:  "Whose day shall never sleep in night."

Roger Fry, "The Cloister" (1924)

Fortunately for us, evil can never harm Richard Crashaw and his young married couple, for they are imperishable.  I harbor no illusions:  evil, and its ever-mutating tyrants of a day, will always be with us.  But so will Crashaw's "sweet turtles."

Think of it:  after nearly four centuries, you and I have just helped to preserve and prolong the beauty of Crashaw's poem and the love of the young married couple.  Evil has no say in the matter.  The continuity of the human spirit is something that evil can never understand, and can never touch.

Who could have known that, three hundred years after Richard Crashaw, Philip Larkin would come along?

            An Arundel Tomb

Side by side, their faces blurred,
The earl and countess lie in stone,
Their proper habits vaguely shown
As jointed armour, stiffened pleat,
And that faint hint of the absurd --
The little dogs under their feet.

Such plainness of the pre-baroque
Hardly involves the eye, until
It meets his left-hand gauntlet, still
Clasped empty in the other; and
One sees, with a sharp tender shock,
His hand withdrawn, holding her hand.

They would not think to lie so long.
Such faithfulness in effigy
Was just a detail friends would see:
A sculptor's sweet commissioned grace
Thrown off in helping to prolong
The Latin names around the base.

They would not guess how early in
Their supine stationary voyage
The air would change to soundless damage,
Turn the old tenantry away;
How soon succeeding eyes begin
To look, not read.  Rigidly they

Persisted, linked, through lengths and breadths
Of time.  Snow fell, undated.  Light
Each summer thronged the glass.  A bright
Litter of birdcalls strewed the same
Bone-riddled ground.  And up the paths
The endless altered people came,

Washing at their identity.
Now, helpless in the hollow of
An unarmorial age, a trough
Of smoke in slow suspended skeins
Above their scrap of history,
Only an attitude remains:

Time has transfigured them into
Untruth.  The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

Philip Larkin, The Whitsun Weddings (Faber and Faber 1964).

I have talked about "An Arundel Tomb" in a previous post, so I will not discuss its particulars on this occasion.  But I do wonder whether Larkin knew of Crashaw's poem.  Given his knowledge of English poetry, he likely did.  However, I prefer to think that Larkin knew nothing of the "young married couple," the "sweet turtles," and that he independently echoed, and provided his own lovely elaborations upon, Crashaw's theme.

Roger Fry, "La Salle des Caryatides in the Louvre"

Those who traffic in evil are members of the human race, but they know nothing of humanity.  They know nothing of love.  They cannot conceive of, and thus can never harm, the uncountable and continuous streams of life, seen and unseen, that the rest of us create and perpetuate on a daily basis.

     Love Lives Beyond the Tomb

     Love lives beyond
The tomb, the earth, which fades like dew!
     I love the fond,
The faithful, and the true.

     Love lives in sleep,
The happiness of healthy dreams:
     Eve's dews may weep,
But love delightful seems.

     Tis seen in flowers,
And in the morning's pearly dew;
     In earth's green hours,
And in the heaven's eternal blue.

     Tis heard in Spring
When light and sunbeams, warm and kind,
     On angel's wing
Bring love and music to the mind.

     And where is voice,
So young, so beautiful, and sweet
     As Nature's choice,
Where Spring and lovers meet?

     Love lives beyond
The tomb, the earth, the flowers, and dew.
     I love the fond,
The faithful, young and true.

John Clare, in Edmund Blunden and Alan Porter (editors), John Clare: Poems Chiefly from Manuscript (Cobden-Sanderson 1920).

"Peace, good reader."

Roger Fry, "The Church at Ramatuelle" (1922)

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Leaves, Again

When I was growing up in Minnesota, we used to preserve fallen leaves by ironing them between two sheets of wax paper.  Otherwise, a saved leaf was likely to one day crumble to dust in your hands.

I remember searching for the "perfect" leaf to preserve.  Oak.  Elm.  Maple. Birch.

Where have all those wax-encased leaves gone to?  In a box or a scrapbook somewhere.  But where?

Green thoughts, the feel of pink -- remembered in the mind;
but those spring splendors, like dreams, are gone beyond recall.
The whole village in yellow leaves, I shut the gate, lie down --
once again the year is already deep into fall.

Kashiwagi Jotei (1763-1819) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Kanshi: The Poetry of Ishikawa Jōzan and Other Edo-Period Poets (North Point Press 1990).

Eliot Hodgkin, "Two Dead Leaves" (1963)

The fallen leaves are always reminding us of . . . something.  In the grand scheme of things, they whisper to us of transience and mortality.  No surprise there.  But they get more personal than that.  I suspect that most of us could trace a path back into our past leaf by leaf, if we wished.

Do you remember that day in the park, and the leaf that you saved so as to never lose the memory of that moment?  Who knows how far back we could go?

               A Musician's Wife

Between the visits to the shock ward
The doctors used to let you play
On the old upright Baldwin
Donated by a former patient
Who is said to be quite stable now.

And all day long you played Chopin,
Badly and hauntingly, when you weren't
Screaming on the porch that looked
Like an enormous birdcage.  Or sat
In your room and stared out at the sky.

You never looked at me at all.
I used to walk down to where the bus stopped
Over the hill where the eucalyptus trees
Moved in the fog, and stared down
At the lights coming on, in the white rooms.

And always, when I came back to my sister's
I used to get out the records you made
The year before all your terrible trouble,
The records the critics praised and nobody bought
That are almost worn out now.

Now, sometimes I wake in the night
And hear the sound of dead leaves
Against the shutters.  And then a distant
Music starts, a music out of an abyss,
And it is dawn before I sleep again.

Weldon Kees, in Donald Justice (editor), The Collected Poems of Weldon Kees (University of Nebraska Press 1975).

Eliot Hodgkin, "Dead Leaves and Birds' Eggs" (1963)

The trees are nearly empty.  The wind and the rain have seen to that.  Now is when our companionship with leaves begins in earnest.  Call me sentimental (I am unapologetically guilty), accuse me of embracing the Pathetic Fallacy (guilty again), but, as the fallen leaves stroll with me down the street, the wind coming up from behind us, I cannot help but feel that we are in this together.

                                        Autumn Ends

Lost in vacant wonder at how the months flow away in silence,
I sit alone in my idle hut, thinking endless thoughts.
An old man's cares, like these leaves, are hard to sweep away.
To the sound of their rustling I see autumn off once again.

Tate Ryūwan (1762-1844) (translated by Burton Watson), in Burton Watson, Kanshi: The Poetry of Ishikawa Jōzan and Other Edo-Period Poets (North Point Press 1990).

Eliot Hodgkin, "Two Chestnut Leaves" (1973)

When it comes to leaves, and their place in our lives, a visit to Robert Frost is a necessity.  He knew a thing or two about this topic.  In his simple-sly way he says it all.

              In Hardwood Groves

The same leaves over and over again!
They fall from giving shade above
To make one texture of faded brown
And fit the earth like a leather glove.

Before the leaves can mount again
To fill the trees with another shade,
They must go down past things coming up.
They must go down into the dark decayed.

They must be pierced by flowers and put
Beneath the feet of dancing flowers.
However it is in some other world
I know that this is the way in ours.

Robert Frost, A Boy's Will (1913).

"A crowd, a host, of golden daffodils . . . fluttering and dancing in the breeze."  (William Wordsworth, "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.")

The arc of our life is not complicated:  dancing flowers and fallen leaves.

Eliot Hodgkin, "Four Dead Leaves" (1961)

Saturday, November 7, 2015

"The Region November"

As the years pass, I find myself growing fonder of November.  I have tended to think of the month as merely the somber denouement of the brilliance of October, with its mix of exhilaration and wistfulness, beauty and loss. November is pitched at a lower key.  An end has been reached.  Our task seems to be "what to make of a diminished thing."  (Robert Frost, "The Oven Bird.")

             The Region November

It is hard to hear the north wind again,
And to watch the treetops, as they sway.

They sway, deeply and loudly, in an effort,
So much less than feeling, so much less than speech,

Saying and saying, the way things say
On the level of that which is not yet knowledge:

A revelation not yet intended.
It is like a critic of God, the world

And human nature, pensively seated
On the waste throne of his own wilderness.

Deeplier, deeplier, loudlier, loudlier,
The trees are swaying, swaying, swaying.

Wallace Stevens, Collected Poetry and Prose (The Library of America 1997).  The poem was written in the closing years of Stevens's life.

A side-note:  long-time (and much-appreciated!) visitors to this location may recognize "The Region November" as my "November poem."  I beg your indulgence for our annual visit to the poem:  I'm afraid I will never tire of it.

James Paterson, "Moniaive" (1885)

But is November in fact "a diminished thing"?  I have been taking my daily walks at dusk.  In this part of the world, we are entering into a greyness that will persist, with occasional bright intervals, until spring arrives.  Yet the November twilight's combination of grey sky and gold-leaved trees is enchanting.  And, thanks to our rain and our mild climate, the grassy meadows remain green, with palls of fallen gold leaves spread beneath the trees.  We walk within a shimmering grey-gold-green evening light.  Yes, there is a somberness.  But, if we have suffered a loss, the loss is not without compensations, nor is it irrevocable.

Others may feel differently.  We have all felt and heard the winds of November, and shivered.  Well, yes, of course:  mortality.

                  November Eves

November Evenings!  Damp and still
They used to cloak Leckhampton hill,
And lie down close on the grey plain,
And dim the dripping window-pane,
And send queer winds like Harlequins
That seized our elms for violins
And struck a note so sharp and low
Even a child could feel the woe.

Now fire chased shadow round the room,
Tables and chairs grew vast in gloom:
We crept about like mice, while Nurse
Sat mending, solemn as a hearse,
And even our unlearned eyes
Half closed with choking memories.

Is it the mist or the dead leaves,
Or the dead men -- November eves?

James Elroy Flecker, in J. C. Squire (editor), The Collected Poems of James Elroy Flecker (Martin Secker 1916).

James Paterson, "Autumn in Glencairn, Moniaive" (1887)

Stevens is more equivocal than Flecker:  the trees in "The Region November" are "saying and saying" something.  I suspect that mortality crossed Stevens's mind, but he seems open to other possibilities as well:   "A revelation not yet intended."

I am reminded of "The River of Rivers in Connecticut":  "The river is fateful,/Like the last one.  But there is no ferryman."  As is so often the case with Stevens, it is movement that is important:  the movement back and forth between our Imagination and the World, a World in which "the mere flowing of the water is a gayety,/Flashing and flashing in the sun."  The trees "swaying, swaying, swaying" are part of that World.  Charon the ferryman is not present.

Flecker, on the other hand, is quite clear as to what November eves and November winds betoken.  As is Thomas Hardy.

             A Night in November

I marked when the weather changed,
And the panes began to quake,
And the winds rose up and ranged,
That night, lying half-awake.

Dead leaves blew into my room,
And alighted upon my bed,
And a tree declared to the gloom
Its sorrow that they were shed.

One leaf of them touched my hand,
And I thought that it was you
There stood as you used to stand,
And saying at last you knew!

Thomas Hardy, Late Lyrics and Earlier, With Many Other Verses (Macmillan 1922).

Those talking trees again:  "And a tree declared to the gloom/Its sorrow that they were shed."

James Paterson, "Borderland" (1896)

There is also this in November:  the sliver of yellow sky just above the horizon, beneath the wall of grey clouds, as the sun sets.  I saw it earlier this week.  Again, the loss we have suffered, the loss that brings us to November, is not without compensations, nor is it irrevocable.  That is what the evanescent, luminous sliver of yellow sky says.

            There's Nothing Like the Sun

There's nothing like the sun as the year dies,
Kind as it can be, this world being made so,
To stones and men and beasts and birds and flies,
To all things that it touches except snow,
Whether on mountain side or street of town.
The south wall warms me:  November has begun,
Yet never shone the sun as fair as now
While the sweet last-left damsons from the bough
With spangles of the morning's storm drop down
Because the starling shakes it, whistling what
Once swallows sang.  But I have not forgot
That there is nothing, too, like March's sun,
Like April's, or July's, or June's, or May's,
Or January's, or February's, great days:
And August, September, October, and December
Have equal days, all different from November.
No day of any month but I have said --
Or, if I could live long enough, should say --
"There's nothing like the sun that shines today."
There's nothing like the sun till we are dead.

Edward Thomas, in Edna Longley (editor), Edward Thomas: The Annotated Collected Poems (Bloodaxe Books 2008).

James Paterson, "The Last Turning, Winter, Moniaive" (1885)