Millet’s Angelus is named after the Marian devotional prayer. Millet 1814-1875 depicts two peasants bowing their heads at the end of the day and praying, as the Angelus bell of blessing tolls in the church on the horizon. The image was placed long ago over my mother’s dining room table. The evening silence and rural spiritual obedience of it makes it hang heavy and famously in my memory.
The Angelus (1857–59) by Jean-François Millet
Salvador Dali 1904-1989 was fascinated by Millet’s Angelus. He painted his own variation on it. Dali did not believe that the peasant planters were praying. He thought they were mourning the death of an infant they had buried there in the field.
The figures are too focused and quiet, too relaxed, to be praying a devotional prayer at the end of the work day, or so Dali thought.
Pastels by Millet and other French painters are at the MFA now. There’s a note about how much Millet meant to Impressionists such as van Gogh 1853-1890 who viewed a group of Millet’s pastels and said to his brother, “Take off your shoes, for the place on which you stand is holy ground.”
For a man who wants to be his own master, to depend on no one else, to make life conform to his own visions rather than to follow the blueprints of others, playwriting is the perfect occupation. To sit in a room alone for six or seven or ten hours, sharing time with characters that you created, is sheer heaven. And if not heaven, it’s at least an escape from hell.
Here’s a poem from Tracy K. Smith’s new volume, Wade in the Water. She is the current poet laureate of the United States and a teacher at Princeton.
The United States Welcomes You
Why and by whose power were you sent?
What do you see that you may wish to steal?
Why this dancing? Why do your dark bodies
Drink up all the light? What are you demanding
That we feel? Have you stolen something? Then
What is that leaping in your chest? What is
The nature of your mission? Do you seek
To offer a confession? Have you anything to do
With others brought by us to harm? Then
Why are you afraid? And why do you invade
Our night, hands raised, eyes wide, mute
As ghosts? Is there something our wish to confess?
Is this some enigmatic type of test? What if we
Fail? How and to whom do we address our appeal?
Extraordinary passages of light shine out of the poet’s memoir. Here’s one that made me blink. It’s the author as a college student, on a trip to New York City, and back to Cambridge: a young person, finding herself, forming herself with ideas, finding comfort in movement at night along a most populated corridor.
I made a trip to New York [from Cambridge] one weekend….my aunt Carla had given me a tour of the Harlem neighborhoods, weaving along the blocks of Striver’s Row and, farther north, pointing out the abandoned buildings that had once been magnificent, too, but that now stood like doll houses on burnt-out blocks. After dark, as we were heading back down Lenox Avenue, I’d pointed to the silhouettes warming themselves around garbage cans whose contents had been set aflame…There was something about it that delighted me, something real…
“When I graduate, I want to come here. I want to live in Harlem, with all these beautiful black people,” I announced. It felt like a homecoming. The little sliver of blackness I’d known growing up in California, a sliver that sat inside the walls of our family house, or inside the silence of my mind, leapt in joy to know that there was an immense realm whose facets gave back occasional glimpses of itself.
On the Greyhound back to Boston, signs everywhere told me how much further there was to go…Moving over ramps and bridges, and back and forth across lanes, I relaxed my grip around the confusion, the sorrow, the independence, the wanting, the shifting allegiances, the insatiable wondering that fueled so much of my life. High above the ground, watching the bus’s shadow skimming north on Interstate 95, I felt vacant, expansive, subjective, far away. Like a cloud pushed along by the wind.
My son Nate introduced the poetry and music of Kendrick Lamar to me by playing episodes of the podcast Dissect on a long road trip. The episodes explore, in detail, the raw energy, passionate theology and unnerving social commentary in the tracks of Lamar’s album, To Pimp A Butterfly. The lyrics explode in performance, unfolding the seethe and rage of black America in powerful, introspective art.
Art that is soft and easy on our hearts is not all there is. When we are on top of the world, safe and secure, music and poetry can be quiet and mild. There are other voices, from other places, down the street, that speak from very different experiences.
During a few days together, my sons and I talked about many things. Matt was reading about Harry Truman, the 33rd President of the United States. In the last years of his life, in Independence, Missouri, Truman took morning walks with Thomas Melton, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church.
Passing an enormous gingko tree on Maple Street, one of the largest, most spectacular trees in town, Truman would customarily speak to it. And what would the President say to the tree, Melton was asked by a visitor years later. He would say, ‘You’re doing a good job.’ Truman, by David McCullough, p. 984.
When Truman died in December, 1972, Mary McGrory wrote a tribute to him for the Washington Star:
He did not require to be loved. He did not expect to be followed blindly. Congressional opposition never struck him as subversive, nor did he regard his critics as traitors. He never whined. He walked around Washington every morning–it was safe then. He met reporters frequently as a matter of course, and did not blame them for his failures. He did not use the office as a club or a shield, or a hiding place. He said he lived by the Bible and history. So armed, he proved that the ordinary American is capable of grandeur, and that a President can be a human being. Truman, p. 989
Between painting a roof yesterday and the hay
harvest tomorrow, a holiday in the woods
under the grooved trunks and branches, the roof
of leaves lighted and shadowed by the sky.
As America from England, the woods stands free
from politics and anthems. So in the woods I stand
free, knowing my land. My country, ’tis of the
drying pools along Camp Branch I sing
where the water striders walk like Christ
all sons of God, and of the woods grown old
on the stony hill where the thrush’s song rises
in the light like a curling vine and the bobwhite’s
whistle opens in the air, broad and pointed as a leaf.
from Farming: A Handbook
Sudden Things by Donald Hall
A storm was coming, that was why it was dark. The wind was blowing the fronds of the palm trees off. They were maples. I looked out the window across the big lawn. The house was huge, full of children and old people. The lion was loose. Either because of the wind, or by malevolent human energy, which is the same thing, the cage had come open. Suppose a child walked outside!
A child walked outside. I knew that I must protect him from the lion. I threw myself on top of the child. The lion roared over me. In the branches and the bushes there was suddenly a loud crackling. The lion cringed. I looked up and saw that the elephant was loose!
The elephant was taller than the redwoods. He was hairy like a mammoth. His tusks trailed vines. Parrots screeched around his head. His eyes rolled crazily. He trumpeted. The ice-cap was breaking up!
The lion backed off, whining. The boy ran for the house. I covered his retreat, locked all the doors and pulled the bars across them. An old lady tried to open a door to get a better look. I spoke sharply to her, she sat down grumbling and pulled a blanket over her knees.
Out of the window I saw zebras and rattlesnakes and wildebeests and cougars and woodchucks on the lawns and in the tennis courts. I worried how, after the storm, we would put the animals back in their cages, and get to the mainland.
To whoever is not listening to the sea
this Friday morning, to whoever is cooped up
in house or office, factory or woman
or street or mine or harsh prison cell;
to him I come, and, without speaking or looking,
I arrive and open the door of his prison,
and a vibration starts up, vague and insistent,
a great fragment of thunder sets in motion
the rumble of the planet and the foam,
the raucous rivers of the ocean flood,
the star vibrates swiftly in its corona,
and the sea is beating, dying and continuing.
So, drawn on by my destiny,
I ceaselessly must listen to and keep
the sea’s lamenting in my awareness,
I must feel the crash of the hard water
and gather it up in a perpetual cup
so that, wherever those in prison may be,
wherever they suffer the autumn’s castigation,
I may be there with an errant wave,
I may move, passing through windows,
and hearing me, eyes will glance upward
saying “How can I reach the sea?”
And I shall broadcast, saying nothing,
the starry echoes of the wave,
a breaking up of foam and quicksand,
a rustling of salt withdrawing,
the grey cry of the sea-birds on the coast.
So, through me, freedom and the sea
will make their answer to the shuttered heart.
Eisner reaches back to the Mapuche people, the native inhabitants of the part of Chile where Neruda lived, tracing the poet’s literary DNA:
…the culture and oral traditions of the indigenous Mapuche people were steeped in lyric verse through their unwritten language, Mapudungun. the manner in which they elected their leaders exemplifies this. For the position of strategic leader, a candidate must prove he is a sage: that he is wise, prudent, and patient. He also must demonstrate his command of the language. Toward this end, one of the tests was a trial of rhetoric in a ritual exercised through poetry. The candidates recited, they sang, they engaged their audience with poems they created spontaneously, odes to everything that surrounded them…Through language they had to connect the tribe to its ancestors… p. 518
A barn shall harbor heaven,
A stall become a shrine.
-Richard Wilbur 1921-2017