- Edna Ferber: American Beauty
- Anne Perry: A Dangerous Mourning
- Toni Morrison: Jazz
- Pym: The Sweet Dove Died
- Mann: Death in Venice
- R.C. Hutchinson: March the Ninth
- Yates: Cold Spring Harbor
- Yates: Young Hearts Crying
- Ibsen: An Enemy of the People
- Ibsen: The Wild Duck
- DuMaurier: The Scapegoat
- Marquand: H.M. Pulham, Esquire
- Plumly: Against Sunset
- Logan; Night Battles
- Hardy: A Pair of Blue Eyes
- Wharton: Bunner Sisters
- Butler: The Way of All Flesh
- James: What Maisie Knew
- James: The Beast in the Jungle
- Hawthorne: The Scarlet Letter
SING FOR ME
For several years in middle age I fell in love
With celebrated women, Maria Callas and
Miss Monkey Business (from a local band),
Then Dolly Parton. O Dolly, in the spirit of the flesh,
Dolly any woman met any place I’d ever been.
And later in the evening of that night
I asked if she would shed
That blond Aldebaran wig and the make-up, please,
Spike heels and that tightest
Cowgirl sequined dress she wore,
Then the reins that held her breasts.
There in the mirror we beheld
The girl she’d lost along the way –
She was so tiny I was taller
Than I’d ever been.
Sing for me, I begged.
I’m any man met anywhere
Who does not matter, and will not, ever.
She sang that song about lost love and bad men,
And there was me, a bad, lost loveable man again,
Full of too much whiskey, tired
Of ogling the ladies in the mirrors
Of the roadhouse bars. I’d lost my job,
I’d lost our tickets out of here, become that man
Who stuttered, howled, wept,
Fell down in the gravel parking lot, cursed,
Swallowed my tobacco, and said I’m sorry, Ma’am,
And she said, to the bunch grass,
To the cows, He’s just a bad man
Gone good. Or maybe he’s just mine.
She took my arm and off we walked
To charm the hollows of the glens
Where every rock and tree could be
A member of the wedding of the rocks and trees.
I love this poem! It opens up the deep-held, sometimes mortifying, obsessive feelings that some may dismiss as “crushes”. Do you have crushes? I am a specialist on the post-humous crush (safer than focusing on the living human!). I’ve done it with John Keats (could I have shown him long lingering pleasures of love?) and Wallace Stevens (might I have been a perfect dinner and concert companion, admiring his wines and his chocolate covered prunes). And Jane Austen was a huge crush, although I was a little bit afraid of the acidulous judgements she would deliver about me.
Orlen’s “Sing for Me” celebrates falling in love with voices first The poem reads quickly at first, with the breathlessness of love. We don’t have a full stop until the end of line 10. Notice the repeated words and the focus on “M”, “D”, and “L” sounds which add music to the poem. Both lust and love have deep transformative powers here and the “bad, lost, loveable man” will go “good” because of the powerful charms of love and song.
I also like Orlen’s use of nature here. The final lines personify the “rocks” and “trees” as being charmed by Dolly and the speaker, as members of the wedding. Orlen is probably alluding to Wordsworth’s famous “rocks and stones and trees”. Does Dolly have the mythic, unscrutable power of Wordsworth’s Lucy? I think so. She is both tiny and enormous at the same time. We don’t know if Wordsworth’s Lucy is compost, a heavenly being, a subterranean figure, as enduring as a rock, stone, or tree, or as eternal as rock, stone, tree. The same is true with Dolly in this wonderful poem.
I am printing this poem by special permission of the author, Steve Orlen, who has written several books. He has published six poetry books (available at amazon.com among other places) including “The Elephant’s Child: New & Selected Poems 1978-2005” “A Thousand Threads,” , “Kisses”, and “This Particular Eternity.”
It snowed and snowed ,the whole world over,
Snow swept the world from end to end.
A candle burned on the table;
A candle burned.
As during summer midges swarm
To beat their wings against a flame
Out in the yard the snowflakes swarmed
To beat against the window pane
The blizzard sculptured on the glass
Designs of arrows and of whorls.
A candle burned on the table;
A candle burned.
Distorted shadows fell
Upon the lighted ceiling:
Shadows of crossed arms,of crossed legs-
Of crossed destiny.
Two tiny shoes fell to the floor
A candle on a nightstand shed wax tears
Upon a dress.
All things vanished within
The snowy murk-white,hoary.
A candle burned on the table;
A candle burned.
A corner draft fluttered the flame
And the white fever of temptation
Upswept its angel wings that cast
A cruciform shadow
It snowed hard throughout the month
Of February, and almost constantly
A candle burned on the table;
A candle burned.
This poem is written by Yuri Zhivago, Pasternak’s title character. Aside from the penultimate stanza which, I think, adds nothing to the poem but an overlay of murkiness where everything else is factual observation, this poem is excellent. I like the incessant, tedious candle burning. It makes the seemingly endlessness of winter and is the focal point of the poem. The candle burns “almost constantly” throughout the sweeping snow storm. The repeated words, “A candle burned on the table; / A candle burned” become an incantation for the sameness of winter and provides a sense of statis–even entrapment.
In spite of all the edifying poetry I read and the orts of philosophy, I find that I’ve inherited my mother’s proclivity for “self-help”. Now my mother was quite insane about it. She paid a “Perfect Master” $250.00 for a weekend in which she had to wander in a large wooded farm in Connecticut and only had half a tangerine to eat the entire time. She parted with small fortunes to have her auras read and to have her horoscope charted. She had a psychic named Ella who was paid good money to assure my mother that she was the very most special victim in the world. My two year old son observed that my mother did not walk–she “ice-skated”. And indeed, without real skates, she skated off to places that would make her happy and was profligate with her money. Berkeley, California? She was there. In Prince Andrew’s village? There she was. Sedona, Arizona. Australia. She globe-trotted in search of perfect enlightenment.
And I do the same via library books although I am more in touch with economic reality than my mother was.
You have probably seen the books. You probably started with Mario Kondo and her “Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing”. You threw out a lot of things. You became so anxiously authoritarian that you did not realize that it was Marie Kondo, herself, who failed to “spark joy” in you and not your fountain pens, your warm nightgowns, and your old books.
Then it’s likely you discovered “Hygge” – The Danish Secret to Happy Living, which seems to be that you make your loved ones tea and cupcakes and put on a pair of warm sloppy socks. Your Hygge felt so good that you castigated yourself for succumbing to the Japanese art and the Danish way of happiness encouraged you to live in comfortable clutter. So you repurchased some of those things that Marie Kondo had suggested you get rid of. When Hygge was getting a bit—well, stuffy and too hot, you turned to “Lykke”, the Danish art of happiness.
When you are not bundled up in Hygge, you practice Lykke, which means that you are not merely comfy cosy, you are so happy that you leave the hygge of your home and travel the world pursuing that happiness. Because Happiness is like a massive treasure hunt. Say goodbye to your job; max out your credit cards, and then look for buried treasure in all the corners of the world. Lykke will come to you when you go to Uganda and cook a dinner for an alarmed family whose home you’ve decided to sprinkle and sparkle with your Lykke. Soon you will transform them into a Hygge family. Then it’s off to do more Lykke in the Andes and run off to China to play a tennis game with a random stranger. Who cares if you lose? You’ve got Lykke! Once you’ve gone bankrupt pursuing your Lykke a sobering choice awaits you: you can’t buy that airplane ticket to Galway to dance with the Lord of the Dance and his acolytes. Lykke has left you penniless.
Now it’s time for returning home and thinking of how to recover from your Lykke madness. It’s time to turn to Lagom: The Swedish Art of Balanced Living. There’s the ticket. Those common sense Swedes know when enough is enough. They have a King and Queen, but they ride bicycles and not state carriage. That is Lagom for you. “Not too little; not too much.” Moderation is key! The Swedes have a genetic proclivity for minimalism and they abhor clutter. But they don’t look for joy; they seek simplicity. And they find it in the six hour work day. The nice thing about Lagom is that you can have a couple of things in your house that are useful but that don’t necessarily spark joy.
After having entered into a state of Lagom you became more aware of your need to be frugal and minimalist, because your debts had mounted dangerously high from all your Kon-Maried possessions and your fling at Lykke.
Death Cleaning! It’s a Swedish “art”! You are encouraged to start death-cleaning in early middle age. Nowhere is it explained how “death cleaning” differs from other cleaning, although there’s a lot of reinforcement in the idea that we don’t want to stick other people with our death cleaning. It’s Marie Kondo, all over again, only this time you are not looking for joy—you are waiting to die.
I’ve got an exciting new initiative: The Finnish Bunker. The concept is that you hunker down into your own bunker, which never needs cleaning, and spend no money, throw out everything you can, and wait for death. In the Finnish Bunker there are no diets; there is no spending; there is no cleaning because there’s nothing to clean; news and newspapers cannot enter. And it pays tribute to one of the lesser known Scandanavian countries.
“A Poem, on the Supposition of an Advertisement Appearing in a Morning Paper, of the Publication of a Volume of Poems, by a Servant-Maid”
BY ELIZABETH HANDS
The tea-kettle bubbled, the tea things were set,
The candles were lighted, the ladies were met;
The how d’ye’s were over, and entering bustle,
The company seated, and silks ceased to rustle:
The great Mrs. Consequence opened her fan,
And thus the discourse in an instant began
(All affected reserve and formality scorning):
“I suppose you all saw in the paper this morning
A volume of Poems advertised—’tis said
They’re produced by the pen of a poor servant-maid.”
“A servant write verses!” says Madam Du Bloom:
“Pray what is the subject—a Mop, or a Broom?”
“He, he, he,” says Miss Flounce: “I suppose we shall see
An ode on a Dishclout—what else can it be?”
Says Miss Coquettilla, “Why, ladies, so tart?
Perhaps Tom the footman has fired her heart;
And she’ll tell us how charming he looks in new clothes,
And how nimble his hand moves in brushing the shoes;
Or how, the last time that he went to May Fair,
He bought her some sweethearts of gingerbread ware.”
“For my part I think,” says old Lady Marr-joy,
“A servant might find herself other employ:
Was she mine I’d employ her as long as ’twas light,
And send her to bed without candle at night.”
“Why so?” says Miss Rhymer, displeased: “I protest
’Tis pity a genius should be so depressed!”
“What ideas can such low-bred creatures conceive?”
Says Mrs. Noworthy, and laughed in her sleeve.
Says old Miss Prudella, “If servants can tell
How to write to their mothers, to say they are well,
And read of a Sunday The Duty of Man,
Which is more I believe than one half of them can;
I think ’tis much properer they should rest there,
Than be reaching at things so much out of their sphere.”
Says old Mrs. Candour, “I’ve now got a maid
That’s the plague of my life—a young gossiping jade;
There’s no end of the people that after her come,
And whenever I’m out, she is never at home;
I’d rather ten times she would sit down and write,
Than gossip all over the town every night.”
“Some whimsical trollop most like,” says Miss Prim,
“Has been scribbling of nonsense, just out of a whim,
And, conscious it neither is witty nor pretty,
Conceals her true name, and ascribes it to Betty.”
“I once had a servant myself,” says Miss Pines,
“That wrote on a wedding some very good lines.”
Says Mrs. Domestic, “And when they were done,
I can’t see for my part what use they were on;
Had she wrote a receipt, to’ve instructed you how
To warm a cold breast of veal, like a ragout,
Or to make cowslip wine, that would pass for Champagne,
It might have been useful, again and again.”
On the sofa was old Lady Pedigree placed;
She owned that for poetry she had no taste,
That the study of heraldry was more in fashion,
And boasted she knew all the crests in the nation.
Says Mrs. Routella, “Tom, take out the urn,
And stir up the fire, you see it don’t burn.”
The tea-things removed, and the tea-table gone,
The card-tables brought, and the cards laid thereon,
The ladies, ambitious for each other’s crown,
Like courtiers contending for honours, sat down.
“A peasant stand up thus?” says Regan, incredulous. In his notorious review of Keats, John Gibson Lockhart opines: “The just celebrity of Robert Burns and Miss Baillie has had the melancholy effect of turning the heads of we know not how many farm-servants and unmarried ladies; our very footmen compose tragedies, and there is scarcely a superannuated governess in the island that does not leave a roll of lyrics behind her in her band-box….. [Keats is among the]meanest, the filthiest, and the most vulgar of Cockney poetasters.”
I have just now come across the work of Elizabeth Hands for the first time. I was researching poems about tea and was sent on a very worthy detour. Hands herself was a servant and a highly astute and observant one. I love her satire of the ladies of position with their tag names. As a satire, I think it’s as effective as most of what Swift or Pope wrote.
People have been concerned that poetry reaching today’s readers is primarily mediated through professors in creative writing programs. Would somebody with the brilliance of Keats or the acerbic satiric wit of Hands manage to get published today? Are there “mute inglorious Miltons” being rejected by the creative writing programs or simply out of funds to apply for them?
Yet I hardly want to distract from the excellence of Hands’s satire and astute commentary on how the world works. With a little bit of linguistic tweaking, this poem could easily be written today.
“And were you loved?”
“And did you love in return?”
I believe those are quotations from a poem by Raymond Carver, but I cannot find a copy. The words are simple, unspectacular but have that emotional “catch” that grabs at the gullet. The catch can expand like a bottomless canyon, but for me today the catch is quick to come: my mother’s death. This is the first January since 1928 that she won’t be here for her birthday. She loved me–sometimes in a strangly childish way. Sometimes I felt that I was the mother; sometimes I felt that I was holding (metaphorically) a child who had returned from a day at school where she was laughed at or bullied. I had to comfort her. Comforting a mother or a child leads to that kind of deep emotional catch. It’s an unexpected bump that trips you and suddenly you descend into cascades of emotion.
Yes, each person was loved. Each person had a mother, who felt and hoped and wished for something when the babe quickened. Each person was loved, even–perhaps especially–terrorists, murderers. All had someone who loved him or her.
And now…where has that love gone, that powerful force that pushes babies out of the womb and pushes people into the air? The perversion of love to the idea that, as Yeats put it, “the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
Musée des Beaux Arts
by WH Auden
About suffering they were never wrong,
The Old Masters; how well, they understood
Its human position; how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along;
How, when the aged are reverently, passionately waiting
For the miraculous birth, there always must be
Children who did not specially want it to happen, skating
On a pond at the edge of the wood:
They never forgot
That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course
Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot
Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse
Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.
In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.
Copyright © 1976 by Edward Mendelson, William Meredith and Monroe K. Spears,
Executors of the Estate of W. H. Auden.”
I turn to poetry, as I do more frequently as I age–for almost all occasions, including the most mundane (the poetry of shopping, the poetry of driving…it’s all there). And yet….
“The Death of a Soldier”
by Wallace Stevens
Life contracts and death is expected,
As in a season of autumn.
The soldier falls.
He does not become a three-days personage,
Imposing his separation,
Calling for pomp.
Death is absolute and without memorial,
As in a season of autumn,
When the wind stops,
When the wind stops and, over the heavens,
The clouds go, nevertheless,
In their direction.
All are soldiers, every one of us, soldiering on through life, never knowing when the expected death will come. We don’t usually think of it much when we get up and go to work; life does not seem too perilous on a simply grey January morning, yet to soldier on is, I think, to be willing to live without immediate answers. To risk each day knowing that loss can come from anyplace—from a hospital bed, down from the sky, from an intransigent worm within. To try to live without contemplating that risk, to go on going on, signing leases, paying earthly mortgages, preparing for an indefinate future that is finate indeed….
And yes, they were all loved, everyone of them.