Today, on Bach’s birthday, a poem by Bill Holm, 1943-2009, who lived most of his life in the region of Minnesota where I grew up, and a recording by Glen Gould.
J. S. Bach: F# Minor Toccata
This music weeps, not for sin
but rather for the black fact
that we must all die, but not one
of us knows what comes after.
This music leaps from key to key
as if it had no clear place to arrive,
making up its life, one bar at a time.
But when you come at last to the real theme,
strict, inexorable, and bleak,
you must play it slow and sad,
with melancholy dignity, or you miss
all its grim wisdom.
In three pages, it says, the universe collapses,
and you—still only halfway home.
Derek Walcott was at Boston University during my graduate study there. I always thought of him as Shakespeare incarnate on St. Lucia or some other Caribbean island.
The Sea is History
Where are your monuments, your battles, martyrs?
Where is your tribal memory? Sirs,
in that gray vault. The sea. The sea
has locked them up. The sea is History.
First, there was the heaving oil,
heavy as chaos;
then, likea light at the end of a tunnel,
the lantern of a caravel,
and that was Genesis.
Then there were the packed cries,
the shit, the moaning:
Bone soldered by coral to bone,
mantled by the benediction of the shark’s shadow,
that was the Ark of the Covenant.
Then came from the plucked wires
of sunlight on the sea floor
the plangent harp of the Babylonian bondage,
as the white cowries clustered like manacles
on the drowned women,
and those were the ivory bracelets
of the Song of Solomon,
but the ocean kept turning blank pages
looking for History.
Then came the men with eyes heavy as anchors
who sank without tombs,
brigands who barbecued cattle,
leaving their charred ribs like palm leaves on the shore,
then the foaming, rabid maw
of the tidal wave swallowing Port Royal,
and that was Jonah,
but where is your Renaissance?
Sir, it is locked in them sea sands
out there past the reef’s moiling shelf,
where the men-o’-war floated down;
strop on these goggles, I’ll guide you there myself.
It’s all subtle and submarine,
through colonnades of coral,
past the gothic windows of sea fans
to where the crusty grouper, onyx-eyed,
blinks, weighted by its jewels, like a bald queen;
and these groined caves with barnacles
pitted like stone
are our cathedrals,
and the furnace before the hurricanes:
Gomorrah. Bones ground by windmills
into marl and cornmeal,
and that was Lamentations –
that was just Lamentations,
it was not History;
then came, like scum on the river’s drying lip,
the brown reeds of villages
mantling and congealing into towns,
and at evening, the midges’ choirs,
and above them, the spires
lancing the side of God
as His son set, and that was the New Testament.
Then came the white sisters clapping
to the waves’ progress,
and that was Emancipation –
jubilation, O jubilation –
as the sea’s lace dries in the sun,
but that was not History,
that was only faith,
and then each rock broke into its own nation;
then came the synod of flies,
then came the secretarial heron,
then came the bullfrog bellowing for a vote,
fireflies with bright ideas
and bats like jetting ambassadors
and the mantis, like khaki police,
and the furred caterpillars of judges
examining each case closely,
and then in the dark ears of ferns
and in the salt chuckle of rocks
with their sea pools, there was the sound
like a rumour without any echo
of History, really beginning.
In 1961 Tennessee Williams was near the end of his rope emotionally and vocationally. This tropical stage drama and movie story–The Night Of The Iguana–was written out of that time and condition. A line in the program notes says that it is William’s most autobiographical play. It is a religious passion play. A Southern Protestant, Williams was working out Christian constraints of morality and behavior from a hilltop rainforest setting.
A shamed Episcopal priest, Larry Shannon, leaves his American parish and finds work as a guide for a cut-rate excursion company in Mexico. He reroutes his tour group of female Baptist college teachers to an out-of-the-way hotel in the jungle.
Emotions and passions spill all over the hotel veranda. The fragile, cracking Rev. Shannon is the center of the story. Sex and booze, the ministrations of nature, even the glory of military victory, are sampled as remedies for the discomfort of existence. As the characters try to move forward, each one is tethered to the past. An iguana, caught and roped by the two Mexican cliff divers/service-boys, and held for further torture and slaughter, scratches for release.
The only characters that are free (in addition to those gigalo nature-boy servants) are Hanna Jelkes (played by Amanda Plummer), an itinerant Nantucket painter, and her ancient poet grandfather (played by James Earl Jones). The traveling pair, dressed in white, have no money, and few belongings, but they have their art, their commitment to each other, a kind regard for those around them, and wonder at the world (symbolized by the sea).
John Carter Cash found unpublished lyrics and poems among tall stacks of documents and papers in his father’s homes. After Johnny Cash died in 2003, Paul Muldoon, poetry editor of The New Yorker, helped John Carter Cash sort the poems and collect some of them into this volume. The poems appear with images of a few of the original handwritten pages, and photographs of Johnny Cash.
His biographies tell that as a boy Johnny Cash was drawn to self-expression through writing, and that he read literary poetry, certainly an unusual interest for a youngster in rural Alabama in the years of the Great Depression. He aspired to fame as a performer, not to fame through perfection in composition. Throughout his life Cash kept performing and kept feeding his performances with the products of the hard work of writing. His son tells that at family gatherings his father would disappear, and be found in a quiet room, writing.
Many of the poems in this book are interesting to us simply because Johnny Cash wrote them. Cash probably hoped to find tunes for most of them and to sing them. But some of them stand out, not as great poems but as honest creations of a reflective, spiritual person trying to package memories, thoughts and emotions in poems.
Sometimes adult career paths are set in daydreams of early childhood. Cash’s biographers tell that from an early age he wanted to be a singer and an entertainer. His song Tennessee Flattop Box, released in the early sixties, is a musical statement of who Cash wanted to become when he was young, and of what he became as an adult: a boy with his guitar, singing and playing for an audience.
People came from miles around.
And all the girls
from there to Austin
were slippin’ away from home
and puttin’ jewelry in hock
to take the trip
to go and listen
to the little dark-haired boy
who played the Tennessee flat top box
I reviewed the book for The Christian Century.
Jhumpa Lahiri tells a personal story of a journey into a new language, as a reader and then as a writer. Lahiri wrote this essay of exploration into Italian, in Italian. Another writer translated it to English. The texts of the two languages appear on facing pages. It’s the story of a brave, determined artistic and human quest, told with expected quiet grace.
“How is it possible to feel exiled from a language that isn’t mine? That I don’t know? Maybe because I’m a writer who doesn’t belong completely to any language.” p. 21
“I read slowly, painstakingly. With difficulty. Every page seems to have a light covering of mist. The obstacles stimulate me. Every new construction seems a marvel. Every unknown word a jewel…I read as I did when I was a girl. Thus, as an adult, as a writer, I rediscover the pleasure of reading.” p. 37
“The unknown words remind me that there’s a lot I don’t know in this world…I believe that what can change our life is always outside of us.” p. 43
“When I read in Italian, I feel like a guest, a traveler. Nevertheless, what I’m doing seems a legitimate, acceptable task. When I write in Italian I feel like an intruder, an impostor. The work seems counterfeit, unnatural. I realize that I’ve crossed over a boundary, that I feel lost, in flight. I’m a complete foreigner.” p. 83
“I think that the power of art is the power to wake us up, strike us to our depths, change us. What are we searching for when we read a novel, see a film, listen to a piece of music? We are searching, through a work of art, for something that alters us, that we weren’t aware of before.” p. 171
“I write to feel alone. Ever since I was a child it has been a way of withdrawing, of finding myself. I need silence and solitude.” p. 185
The Last Shift is the final collection of poems by Philip Levine. His friend Edward Hirsch edited and published the book after Levine’s death. In the introduction, Hirsch writes that Levine believed in poetry and was fierce in his loyalty to the past. For those of us who are drawn to the spirits that hang out in the neighborhood bars, at the local church, and with the overnight shift workers to whom dusk and dawn mean something different than they mean to most people, our ears were tuned to Levine’s voice. Levine was a poet of the rain and of trains, reminding us of an old American manufacturing world, and of an old dream world. In Boston tonight the temperature is unseasonably warm for the last week of February.
Rain in Winter
Outside the window drops caught
on the branches of the quince, the sky
distant and quiet, a few patches of light
breaking through. The day is fresh, barely
begun yet feeling used. Soon the phone
will ring for someone, and no one
will pick it up, and the ringing will go on
until the icebox answers with a groan.
The lost dog who sleeps on a bed of rags
behind the garage won’t appear
to beg for anything. Nothing will explain
where the birds have gone, why a wind rages
through the ash trees, why the world
goes on accepting more and more rain.
In the name of the daybreak
and the eyelids of morning
and the wayfaring moon
and the night when it departs,
I swear I will not dishonor
my soul with hatred,
but offer myself humbly
as a guardian of nature,
as a healer of misery,
as a messenger of wonder,
as an architect of peace.
In the name of the sun and its mirrors
and the day that embraces it
and the cloud veils drawn over it
and the uttermost night
and the male and the female
and the plants bursting with seed
and the crowning seasons
of the firefly and the apple,
I will honor all life
–wherever and in whatever form
it may dwell–on Earth my home,
and in the mansion of the stars.
This morning I shoveled snow on a walkway, surrounded by trees. I saw a hawk sail through the snow into the branches of giant white pines and larches, heavy with snow, and chickadees gathered at my feeder. This is a good book for snow days in Massachusetts. Scientists continue to show that creatures around us are adaptable, intelligent, sentient partners on earth, not disposable ornaments.
This is a fine book, full of lively results of research into the grace and evolved wonder of birds. Reading it relieves the nonstop pounding of boorish idiocy from the White House and the halls of human government.
I read somewhere that meteor showers
are almost always named after
the constellations from which
they originate. It’s funny, I think,
how even the universe is telling us
that we can never get too far
from the place that created us.
How there is always a streak of our past
trailing closely behind us
like a smattering of obstinate memories.
Even when we enter a new atmosphere,
become subsumed in flames, turn to dust,
lose ourselves in the wind, and scatter
the surface of all that rests beneath us,
we bring a part of where we are from
to every place we go.
A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks by Terry Tempest Williams
We call basketball players and boxers who never leave their practice and training environments “gym rats”. Terry Tempest Williams is a “national park rat”. In this big book she explores some of the biological, geological, chemical, interpersonal, social, historical, political and spiritual dimensions of the jewels of the American experiment: our national parks. It’s a big, satisfying book, with a soul. There is plenty of observation of birds and animals, of plants and minerals; Williams’ eyes are trained for those natural details. There are also stories that the dry-as-dust naturalist/scientists would never see: the human stories of the employees who tend the parks, of the visitors who experience the parks, of the politicians who write laws effecting the parks, of the spirits of the Native American residents who have been evicted from the parks. In a lyric voice that tells of seeing, touching and listening to the world-preserved and to the myth of the-world-left-alone, Williams tells her own stories in relation to the national parks.
She believes that parks are more important than ever in the current national administrative climate. The hour of the land has come. The parks might save us from ourselves.