And were you loved?

“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.

“One Art”

“One Art”

The art of losing isn’t hard to master;
so many things seem filled with the intent
to be lost that their loss is no disaster.

Lose something every day. Accept the fluster
of lost door keys, the hour badly spent.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

Then practice losing farther, losing faster:
places, and names, and where it was you meant
to travel. None of these will bring disaster.

I lost my mother’s watch. And look! my last, or
next-to-last, of three loved houses went.
The art of losing isn’t hard to master.

I lost two cities, lovely ones. And, vaster,
some realms I owned, two rivers, a continent.
I miss them, but it wasn’t a disaster.

–Even losing you (the joking voice, a gesture
I love) I shan’t have lied. It’s evident
the art of losing’s not too hard to master
though it may look like (Write it!) like disaster.

–Elizabeth Bishop

This superb villanelle exposes the rawness of loss. Bishop begins with a didactic tone: she’s got opinions about losing. Losing is an art because art is not easy. Art is difficult. Art must be practiced. She recommends that we learn how to lose things like car keys or some time ill-spent because soon we will lose places and people. We need to practice loss to prepare ourselves for the most shocking losses of all–the loss of love, the loss of dear people and places.

I think that Bishop is deliberately being sardonic. Loss is not at all easy and the way that the poem breaks down the carefully mandated refrain lines indicates her inability to stay strictly within the form. In the same way, she (and her readers) can and do stray from the publicly regulated blueprint for loss. There are indeed losses that can leave one grieving like crazy for a half-century or more! They are the disasters of life. It seems as if no manner of custom or passage of time can make the losses seem less disastrous.

I like the way that Bishop tries to corral loss into the strict format of the villanelle. She knew all along that you can’t limit loss and pin it down and that no number of rehearsals are adequate preparation for life’s big losses.

Accepting loss is indeed an art.  Poets, philosophers, and historians, and your friends and family discuss it all the time.  I’ve stumbled through small losses and then moved on to greater losses.


“Year’s End” by Richard Wilbur

Now winter downs the dying of the year,
And night is all a settlement of snow;
From the soft street the rooms of houses show
A gathered light, a shapen atmosphere,
Like frozen-over lakes whose ice is thin
And still allows some stirring down within.

I’ve known the wind by water banks to shake
The late leaves down, which frozen where they fell
And held in ice as dancers in a spell
Fluttered all winter long into a lake;
Graved on the dark in gestures of descent,
They seemed their own most perfect monument.

There was perfection in the death of ferns
Which laid their fragile cheeks against the stone
A million years. Great mammoths overthrown
Composedly have made their long sojourns,
Like palaces of patience, in the gray
And changeless lands of ice. And at Pompeii

The little dog lay curled and did not rise
But slept the deeper as the ashes rose
And found the people incomplete, and froze
The random hands, the loose unready eyes
Of men expecting yet another sun
To do the shapely thing they had not done.

These sudden ends of time must give us pause.
We fray into the future, rarely wrought
Save in the tapestries of afterthought.
More time, more time. Barrages of applause
Come muffled from a buried radio.
The New-year bells are wrangling with the snow.


Richard Wilbur, one of our last brilliant poets born in the 1920’s died in mid-October.    He wrote “Year’s End” in 1950.  So long ago.  Only yesterday.  It’s a chilling thought, but a necessary one, that we could at any moment end suddenly.   History today is filled with frequent Pompeiis in the form of gunshots and crashing cars and devastating drugs.  Few poets have written so eloquently about how precarious life is as Wilbur.

We may be “wrangling with the snow” during the “dying of the year” but we also may be dying as quickly as the pets and people of Pompeii or, more slowly, like the mammoths.   It’s important to remember this is you are in a vicious feud with your niece or uncle about who finished the milk or who grabbed too much gravy.

“A New Law” and “Earthworm”

A New Law

Greg Delanty

Let there be a ban on every holiday.

        No ringing in the new year.

No fireworks doodling the warm night air.

        No holly on the door. I say

let there be no more.

        For many are not here who were here before.



They face in opposite directions to reproduce.

What a miner, pistoning in slow
motion through the underworld of the earth,
engineering vents, channels, water flow,

converting death and dearth,
day in, night out. Each eyeless body
digesting the soil, nursing birth.

Cut in two, they double, breathe via marly
skin, a must for farm and garden: alfalfa,
spuds, spinach, carrots, cabbage, barley,

wasabi, wheat, gourds, rutabaga, papaya,
endive. You name it. Build them a shrine.
May these lowly laborers of Gaia

multiply, flourish, never decline,
stick with worm love, position 69.


Greg Delanty writes the kind of poetry I need right now.  As my capacities diminish, I think more and more of the “many …  not here who were here before.”

Food for worms.  Diet of worms.  “Your worm is your only emperor for diet”.  “A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king.”

As the year dips and falls, I think of nothing more than the losses of the year.  I am of the age where my dreams and waking thoughts are populated by those no longer residing at any known address.  I order boxes of sympathy cards so frequently it is alarming.

My own losses are evident too.  The inability to follow through on any of the literary challenges I set up for myself with so much hope and determination just a year ago now seems as if it was always inevitable.

Greg Delanty was much admired by Seamus Heaney.  And he well deserves to be.  “A New Law” is like a blunt-force trauma.  It’s like Auden’s “Stop All the Clocks” but without the prettifying elegiac effects of dog, bones, and traffic policemen.  It’s sheer grunt.

“The Dish of Tea”

Freneau, Philip Morin, 1752-1832 : THE DISH OF TEA.

Let some in beer place their delight,
O’er bottled porter waste the night,
Or sip the rosy wine:
A dish of TEA more pleases me,
Yields softer joys, provokes less noise,
And breeds no base design.

From China’s groves, this present brought,
Enlivens every power of thought,
Riggs many a ship for sea:
Old maids it warms, young widows charms;
And ladies’ men, not one in ten
But courts them for their TEA.

When throbbing pains assail my head,
And dullness o’er my brain is spread,
(The muse no longer kind)
A single sip dispels the hyp:
To chace the gloom, fresh spirits come,
The flood-tide of the mind.

When worn with toil, or vext with care,
Let Susan but this draught prepare,
And I forget my pain.
This magic bowl revives the soul;
With gentlest sway, bids care be gay;
Nor mounts, to cloud the brain.—

If learned men the truth would speak
They prize it far beyond their GREEK,
More fond attention pay;
No HEBREW root so well can suit;
More quickly taught, less dearly bought,
Yet studied twice a day.

This leaf, from distant regions sprung,
Puts life into the female tongue,
And aids the cause of love.
Such power has TEA o’er bond and free;
Which priests admire, delights the ‘squire ,
And Galen’s sons approve.

The virtues of 18th century poetry are many. Many poets of the time period allowed no detail to escape them and Freneau’s overview of his love of tea is an exquisite afternoon entertainment for me. The power of tea has not, I hope, been diminished by the hegemony of Starbucks.  I need a strong mug of Lapsang Souchong tea every morning.  The smoky aroma is invigorating–not that I am vigorous at any time, but a taste of Lapsang will open my eyes.

“A Space in the Air”

A Space in the Air
by Jon Silken

The first day he had gone
I barely missed him. I was glad almost he had left
Without a bark or flick of his tail,
I was content he had slipped

Out into the world. I felt,
Without remarking, it was nearly a relief
From his dirty habits. Then, the second
Day I noticed the space

He left behind him. A hole
Cut out of the air. And I missed him suddenly,
Missed him almost without knowing
Why it was so. And I grew

Afraid he was dead, expecting death
As something I had grown used to. I was afraid
The clumsy children in the street
Had cut his tail off as

A souvenir of the living and
I did not know what to do. I was fearing
Somebody had hurt him. I called his name
But the hole in the air remained.

I have grown accustomed to death
Lately. But his absence made me sad,
I do not know how he should do it
But his absence frightened me.

It was not only his death I feared,
Not only his but as if all of those
I loved, as if all those near me
Should suddenly go

Into the hole in the light
And disappear. As if all of them should go
Without barking, without speaking,
Without noticing me there

But go; and going as if
The instrument of pain were a casual thing
To suffer, as if they should suffer so,
Casually and without greatness,

Without purpose even. But just go.
I should be afraid to lose all those friends like this.
I should fear to lose those loves. But mostly
I should fear to lose you.

If you should go
Without affliction, but even so, I should tear
The rent you would make in the air
And the bare howling

Streaming after your naked hair.
I should feel your going down more than my going down.
My own death I bear everyday
More or less

But your death would be something else,
Something else beyond me. It would not be
Your death or my death, love,
But our rose-linked dissolution.

So I feared his going,
His death, not our death, but a hint at our death. And I shall always fear
The death of those we love as
The hint of your death, love.

“A Toccata of Galuppi’s” by Browning

Robert Browning


Oh Galuppi, Baldassaro, this is very sad to find!
I can hardly misconceive you; it would prove me deaf and blind;
But although I take your meaning, ’tis with such a heavy mind!


Here you come with your old music, and here’s all the good it brings.
What, they lived once thus at Venice where the merchants were the kings,
Where Saint Mark’s is, where the Doges used to wed the sea with rings?


Ay, because the sea’s the street there; and ’tis arched by . . . what you call
. . . Shylock’s bridge with houses on it, where they kept the carnival:
I was never out of England — it’s as if I saw it all.


Did young people take their pleasure when the sea was warm in May?
Balls and masks begun at midnight, burning ever to mid-day,
When they made up fresh adventures for the morrow, do you say?


Was a lady such a lady, cheeks so round and lips so red, —
On her neck the small face buoyant, like a bell-flower on its bed,
O’er the breast’s superb abundance where a man might base his head?


Well, and it was graceful of them — they’d break talk off and afford
— She, to bite her mask’s black velvet — he, to finger on his sword,
While you sat and played Toccatas, stately at the clavichord?


What? Those lesser thirds so plaintive, sixths diminished, sigh on sigh
, Told them something? Those suspensions, those solutions — “Must we die?”
Those commiserating sevenths — “Life might last! we can but try!


“Were you happy?” — “Yes.” — “And are you still as happy?” — “Yes. And you?”
— “Then, more kisses!” — “Did I stop them, when a million seemed so few?”
Hark, the dominant’s persistence till it must be answered to!


So, an octave struck the answer. Oh, they praised you, I dare say!
“Brave Galuppi! that was music! good alike at grave and gay!
“I can always leave off talking when I hear a master play!”


Then they left you for their pleasure: till in due time, one by one,
Some with lives that came to nothing, some with deeds as well undone,
Death stepped tacitly and took them where they never see the sun.


But when I sit down to reason, think to take my stand nor swerve,
While I triumph o’er a secret wrung from nature’s close reserve,
In you come with your cold music till I creep thro’ every nerve.


Yes, you, like a ghostly cricket, creaking where a house was burned:
“Dust and ashes, dead and done with, Venice spent what Venice earned.
“The soul, doubtless, is immortal — where a soul can be discerned.


“Yours for instance: you know physics, something of geology,
“Mathematics are your pastime; souls shall rise in their degree;
“Butterflies may dread extinction, — you’ll not die, it cannot be!


“As for Venice and her people, merely born to bloom and drop,
“Here on earth they bore their fruitage, mirth and folly were the crop:
“What of soul was left, I wonder, when the kissing had to stop?


“Dust and ashes!” So you creak it, and I want the heart to scold.
Dear dead women, with such hair, too — what’s become of all the gold
Used to hang and brush their bosoms? I feel chilly and grown old.


Imagine that you are a person sitting in England—or anywhere, really, but you have never visited Italy. As you listen to a toccata by Galuppi (or perhaps you have the skill to play it) images range about your mind.   Art does that for us.  It can transport us elsewhere and to other times and help us to “see” differently.  Before I went to Venice I was able to almost taste it, touch it, feel it through poetry, paintings, novels.    I felt at home there and my first visit was like arriving at a place I had long known and loved.  Venice18thcenturydance

Browning uses trochaic what? Octameter? Heptameter? There seem to be 7 and 1/2 feet in most lines. The effect on the “ear” is very much as if you hear an old clavier tinkling out its song. But the message is one of nostalgic longing for a place and a time the speaker has never known. The “music” of the poem shows how powerful art can be to make us feel a part of a remote past we never knew. Galuppi’s music filled with tinkling lightness is at odds with this evocation of a somewhat seedy, weary past of romance gone boring and parties gone dull. Are people indeed merely born to “bloom and drop?”

It’s certainly much like other Victorian poets who view nature, ominously, as “red in tooth and claw” and ready to assault us, gleefully, with the grim reaper striking out wildly in all directions. I like the way that Browning uses the past, particularly the past of Renaissance Italy, to reflect upon his present.