Yom Kippur ends today 10/9. The Jewish holy day calls for a return of the exiles. The streets near my house are lined with exiles coming home to the synagogue. I am not a Jew, but the day gets to me. It’s such an important theme. Most of us are lost. Sometimes religious rituals help us find our way home. Here’s a poem by Shara McCallum, a Jamaican-born poet, that takes up the theme of exile, and some of my favorite images of birds and fish.
Exile Say morning and a bird trills on a doorstep outside a kitchen. Inside, fingers roll johnnycakes, dropping balls of dough into oil, splattering, singeing a wrist. Here, a woman is always singing, each note tethering sound to meaning. The trick is to wait on this doorstep forever The trick is to remember time is a fish swimming through dark water.
Paul Mendes-Flohr, an authority on the philosopher Martin Buber 1878-1963, has written a biography of the controversial and beloved social thinker. My review of the book appears in the September 25, 2019 issue of The Christian Century.
In an essay from 1922, just before the publication of I and Thou, Buber wrote: ‘It is far more comfortable to have to do with religion than to have to do with God, who sends one out of home and fatherland into restless wandering. In addition, religion has all kinds of aesthetic refreshments to offer its cultivated adherents…For this reason, at all times the awake spirits have been vigilant and have warned of the diverting forces hidden in religion.’ p. 143
“The Stone”, a story by Louise Erdrich, appeared in a recent issue of The New Yorker. In an online interview, Erdrich said, ‘We all enact odd little rituals we don’t understand.’
Louise Erdrich was born in Little Falls, Minnesota. I think of her writing out of Chippewa country, in northern Minnesota, even though she lives in Minneapolis.
Erdrich wrote: A stone is a thought that the earth develops over inhuman time.
This poem by Erdrich has a line about ‘the old agreement of stones’.
Turtle Mountain Reservation
For Pat Gourneau, my grandfather
The heron makes a cross
flying low over the marsh.
Its heart is an old compass
pointing off in four directions.
It drags the world along,
the world it becomes.
My face surfaces in the green
beveled glass above the washstand.
My handprint in thick black powder
on the bedroom shade.
Home I could drink like thin fire
like lead in my veins,
heart’s armor, the coffee stains.
In the dust of the double hollyhock,
Theresa, one frail flame eating wind.
One slim candle
that snaps in the dry grass.
Ascending tall ladders
that walk to the edge of dusk.
Riding a blue cricket
through the tumult of the falling dawn.
At dusk the gray owl walks the length of the roof,
sharpening its talons on the shingles.
Grandpa leans back
between spoonfuls of canned soup
and repeats to himself a word
that belongs to a world
no one else can remember.
The day has not come
when from sloughs, the great salamander
lumbers through snow, salt, and fire
to be with him, throws the hatchet
of its head through the door of the three-room house
and eats the blue roses that are peeling off the walls.
Uncle Ray, drunk for three days
behind the jagged window
of a new government box,
drapes himself in fallen curtains, and dreams that the odd
beast seen near Cannonball, North Dakota,
crouches moaning at the door to his body. The latch
is the small hook and eye.
of religion. Twenty nuns
fall through clouds to park their butts
on the metal hasp. Surely that
would be considered miraculous almost anyplace,
but here in the Turtle Mountains
it is no more than common fact.
but he can’t shrug them off. He is looking up
dark tunnels of their sleeves,
and into their frozen armpits,
or is it heaven? He counts the points
of their hairs like stars.
One by one they blink out,
and Theresa comes forth
clothed in the lovely hair
she has been washing all day. She smells
like a hayfield, drifting pollen
of birch trees.
Her hair steals across her shoulders
like a postcard sunset.
All the boys tonight, goaded from below,
will approach her in The Blazer, The Tomahawk,
The White Roach Bar where everyone
gets up to cut the rug, wagging everything they got,
as the one bass drum of The Holy Greaseballs
lights a depth
charge through the smoke.
Grandpa leans closer to the bingo.
The small fortune his heart pumps for
is hidden in the stained, dancing numbers.
The Ping-Pong balls rise through colored lights,
brief as sparrows
God is in the sleight of the woman’s hand.
He walks from Saint Ann’s, limp and crazy
as the loon that calls its children
across the lake
in its broke, knowing laughter.
Hitchhiking home from the Mission, if he sings,
it is a loud, rasping wail
that saws through the spine
of Ira Comes Last, at the wheel.
Drawn up through the neck ropes,
drawn out of his stomach
by the spirit of the stones that line
the road and speak
to him only in their old agreement.
Ira knows the old man is nuts.
Lets him out at the road that leads up
over stars and the skulls of white cranes.
And through the soft explosions of cattail
and the scattering of seeds on still water,
walks Grandpa, all the time that there is in his hands
that have grown to be the twisted doubles
of the burrows of mole and badger,
that have come to be the absence
of birds in a nest.
Hands of earth, of this clay
I’m also made from.
Songs, like pictures, have power to change laws and policies, or raise awareness of injustices and inhumane treatment of other people. At least there was a time, not so long ago, when songs and pictures had that power.
In 1948 a plane carrying seasonal workers back to the Mexican border from California orchards crashed over Los Gatos Canyon. 4 Americans and 28 migrant workers were killed. The American press reported on the tragedy without mentioning the names of the Mexican people who died. “Deportee” was written by Woody Guthrie in memory of those unnamed souls. Arlo Guthrie sings the song here.
Prints from the collection of Howard Greenberg are grouped as Capturing Modernism; Picturing the City; Conflicts and Crises; Bearing Witness; Fleeting Moments; Defining Portraits; and Music, Fashion, and Celebrity. Many of the photographs are emblems of American culture in the first part of the twentieth century.
Powerhouse Mechanic (above), one of the photographs in the exhibit, is by Lewis Hine 1874-1940. Hine was a sociologist and reformer who used photography to bring about social change. His photographs told stories that improved child labor laws in America.
Child glassworkers in Indiana 1908. Photograph by Lewis Hine.
Van Morrison was born on this day in 1945 in Belfast, Ireland.
Tree at My Window
Tree at my window, window tree,
My sash is lowered when night comes on;
But let there never be curtain drawn
Between you and me.
Vague dream head lifted out of the ground,
And thing next most diffuse to cloud,
Not all your light tongues talking aloud
Could be profound.
But tree, I have seen you taken and tossed,
And if you have seen me when I slept,
You have seen me when I was taken and swept
And all but lost.
That day she put our heads together,
Fate had her imagination about her,
Your head so much concerned with outer,
Mine with inner, weather.
Walt Whitman was born today, May 31, two-hundred years ago. I thought he was still around. I think of him north of where I live, and up into northern New England.
I wish I could give you a sprig of New England lilac, from the plants blooming in my yard, Walt Whitman.
You took it all in, the visible and the invisible, so that we would have it too. We need your generous, passionate, big, strong American heart. We’re becoming narrow and mean and selfish.
When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom’d,
And the great star early droop’d in the western sky in the night,
I mourn’d, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.
O powerful western fallen star!
O shades of night—O moody, tearful night!
O great star disappear’d—O the black murk that hides the star!
O cruel hands that hold me powerless—O helpless soul of me!
O harsh surrounding cloud that will not free my soul.
In the dooryard fronting an old farm-house near the white-wash’d palings,
Stands the lilac-bush tall-growing with heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
With many a pointed blossom rising delicate, with the perfume strong I love,
With every leaf a miracle—and from this bush in the dooryard,
With delicate-color’d blossoms and heart-shaped leaves of rich green,
A sprig with its flower I break.
In the swamp in secluded recesses,
A shy and hidden bird is warbling a song.
Solitary the thrush,
The hermit withdrawn to himself, avoiding the settlements,
Sings by himself a song.
Song of the bleeding throat,
Death’s outlet song of life, (for well dear brother I know,
If thou wast not granted to sing thou would’st surely die.)
Over the breast of the spring, the land, amid cities,
Amid lanes and through old woods, where lately the violets peep’d from the ground, spotting the gray debris,
Amid the grass in the fields each side of the lanes, passing the endless grass,
Passing the yellow-spear’d wheat, every grain from its shroud in the dark-brown fields uprisen,
Passing the apple-tree blows of white and pink in the orchards,
Carrying a corpse to where it shall rest in the grave,
Night and day journeys a coffin.
Coffin that passes through lanes and streets,
Through day and night with the great cloud darkening the land,
With the pomp of the inloop’d flags with the cities draped in black,
With the show of the States themselves as of crape-veil’d women standing,
With processions long and winding and the flambeaus of the night,
With the countless torches lit, with the silent sea of faces and the unbared heads,
With the waiting depot, the arriving coffin, and the sombre faces,
With dirges through the night, with the thousand voices rising strong and solemn,
With all the mournful voices of the dirges pour’d around the coffin,
The dim-lit churches and the shuddering organs—where amid these you journey,
With the tolling tolling bells’ perpetual clang,
Here, coffin that slowly passes,
I give you my sprig of lilac.
-from When Lilacs Last in the Doorway Bloomed by Walt Whitman
He is gone on the mountain,
He is lost to the forest,
Like a summer-dried fountain,
When our need was the sorest.
The font, reappearing,
From the raindrops shall borrow,
But to us comes no cheering,
To Duncan no morrow!
The hand of the reaper
Takes the ears that are hoary,
But the voice of the weeper
Wails manhood in glory.
The autumn winds rushing
Waft the leaves that are searest,
But our ﬂower was in ﬂushing,
When blighting was nearest.
Fleet foot on the correi,
Sage counsel in cumber,
Red hand in the foray,
How sound is thy slumber!
Like the dew on the mountain,
Like the foam on the river,
Like the bubble on the fountain,
Thou art gone, and forever.
-Sir Walter Scott 1772-1832
A coronach is a traditional Scottish funeral song, a memory now. It was an informal and personal tribute, part eulogy, part lament, part obituary. I post this old-fashioned rural poem on Memorial Day, in memory of those who have died in time of war, in acknowledgment of their personal qualities, in honor of the towns, neighborhoods and landscapes that shaped them, and in respect of those who mourned for them there.
A barn shall harbor heaven,
A stall become a shrine.
-Richard Wilbur 1921-2017