31 December 2014

Haiku 2014/365

The old year passes.
Where did all those moments go?
Let me sleep again. . . .

30 December 2014

Haiku 2014/364

you can't see the wind
only the bending branches
and the shattered limbs

29 December 2014

Haiku 2014/363

perky pigeons strut
down undistinguished sidewalks
pecking at random

Poem of the Week

Poem of the Week is taking this week off (this odd little remnant of 2014) and will start the 2015 series next Monday, 5 January 2015.

28 December 2014

Haiku 2014/362

Sunday flea-market
drumming, strolling, smoke curls up
'till the moon is high

27 December 2014

Haiku 2014/361

extravagant rains
washed through the skies and left us
luxuriant weeds

26 December 2014

Haiku 2014/360

burnished and backlit
trees flame out final farewells
before the light fades

Friday photo 2014/52

from the Legion of Honor: detail of two German statues, ca. 1500: wood, polychromed, with linen (the infant Jesus held by St Anne, reaching towards his mother Mary)

25 December 2014

Haiku 2014/359

crescent moon's sickle
slicing upwards through the blue
a harvest of stars

24 December 2014

Haiku 2014/358

wreaths on empty seats
chatter drifts into silence
office Christmas Eve

23 December 2014

Haiku 2014/357

the storm's last remnant:
a sidewalk damp spot under
matted pine needles

22 December 2014

Haiku 2014/356

searching for the moon
I found only streetlights, clouds,
and my own longing

Poem of the Week 2014/52

Christmas Eve

A Christmas Eve for three of us.
Mother has washed the floors,
Father lights up the Christmas tree.
A wafer, a herring.

Mother is crying.
She sings the carol "Sleep well, sweet Jesus"
in the soprano of Miss Stasia,
a beauty
from the town of Ostroleka.

Beyond the window: night and frost and fear.
How good it is we're here,
we three.

Anna Swir, translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan

We'll close out this year with another one by Polish poet Anna Swir. This comes from a posthumously published sequence of autobiographical poems about her childhood. She was born in Warsaw in 1909. Her father was a painter and the family was extremely poor. Her language is clear and simple, yet its very directness creates a whole world through implication. In the very first line, we find out that it is Christmas Eve but father, mother, and child are alone together – do they have extended families? are they perhaps estranged from them? "Mother has washed the floors" indicates that they are too poor to have any help around the house (back when that was more common than it is now) and maybe also that the household is a bit bohemian – cleaning the floors is something worthy of note, a special-occasion thing. The father lights the candles on the Christmas tree. Preparations made, the three of them share a version of the traditional Polish Christmas Eve dinner. It's one of the biggest feasts in that largely Catholic country, but here, no doubt due to money problems, the traditionally lavish meal is pared down to two basic elements: "A wafer, a herring." The wafer referred to would be the oplatek, a thin unleavened flatbread similar to a Communion host and stamped with sacred images related to the Nativity. Christmas Eve was a fast day so the feast, though lavish, centered on fish rather than flesh. Herring is traditional, but usually there are other, fancier fish like carp – probably herring is all this family can afford. But these two remnants of the usual spread – the communion-like wafer, the fish – add overtones of sacredness and tradition to the little family gathering.

The mother sings them a carol "in the soprano of Miss Stasia, / a beauty / from the town of Ostroleka." An earlier poem in the sequence tells us that the mother is (or was, before her marriage) herself the beautiful singer Miss Stasia. She was engaged to "handsome Mr Raczynski" but breaks it off: "He despaired. / The Lord will punish you for me. / And the Lord punished her. / She married a madman." Her father seems to have been possessed by his painting, though never financially successful. Later in the sequence, we are told again of the mother singing, "after many years," in the "young soprano of Miss Stasia"; this time, she sings to her granddaughter. But before she sings, we are told that she is crying. With sorrow, with joy, with memories of handsome Mr Raczynski, with thoughts of her madman husband, with regrets or pleasures or all of these things? A whole history of complexity is implicit in "Mother is crying."

"Beyond the window" – that is, right outside their dwelling, and able to see in as they are able to see out – Swir lists three things: night and frost and fear. Night is to be expected, since the Christmas Eve celebrations don't start until sundown, and the candle have been lit on the tree; frost is also to be expected, given the time of year. But both of these familiar things can also be threatening and dangerous – hence the third thing this little girl, a child of poverty and bohemia, sees lying just outside: fear. Beyond the hazards outside and the complicated emotions inside, there is still a feeling of warmth and comfort from being with the two people she loves most, her father and mother; and however they are feeling about each other, she finds solace and cheer in being with both of them, all three together: "How good it is we're here / we three."

I took this from Talking to My Body by Anna Swir, translated by Czeslaw Milosz and Leonard Nathan.

21 December 2014

Haiku 2014/355

sunset was early
a cat glides through the shadows
why am I awake

20 December 2014

Haiku 2014/354

blue bird, nut in beak:
does he know he's picturesque,
perched in golden leaves?

18 December 2014

Haiku 2014/352

paved with marble clouds,
grout gilded by late sunlight . . .
Sky! To live in you!

17 December 2014

Haiku 2014/351

delicate drizzle
bespangles the bending leaves
and the wilting blooms

16 December 2014

15 December 2014

Haiku 2014/349

blankets cover me
darkness covers us outside
rain dances downward

Poem of the Week 2014/51

Desert Places

Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast
In a field I looked into going past,
And the ground almost covered smooth in snow,
But a few weeds and stubble showing last.

The woods around it have it – it is theirs.
All animals are smothered in their lairs.
I am too absent-spirited to count;
The loneliness includes me unawares.

And lonely as it is that loneliness
Will be more lonely ere it will be less –
A blanker whiteness of benighted snow
With no expression, nothing to express.

They cannot scare me with their empty spaces
Between stars – on stars where no human race is.
I have it in me so much nearer home
To scare myself with my own desert places.

Robert Frost

Here's a winter snow scene, but one that captures an emotion far from Currier-and-Ives coziness. The first two lines establish that the speaker is traveling, probably on foot since he is alone, and probably swiftly since snow is falling and it's getting darker; he glances into a field in passing, and the concentrated moment of that glance and the feelings and thoughts it evokes expand into the rest of the poem. Both snow and night are falling "fast, oh, fast" – the repetition gives the impression that the speaker is realizing both are falling even faster and more emphatically than he initially thought when he passed the field. He says he "looked into" the field as he was going past, which implies that he glanced over and took a quick look at it (and it appears to be a bit of an eye-catching break in the landscape; we're told later that it's surrounded by woods) – but to look into can also imply to investigate or examine, which is what the visual image of the snowy field causes him to do internally as he continues to go past. (Perhaps past is meant to carry with it not only the sense of moving beyond or away from something, but also an intimation of the past, as in, time that has gone by – combined with the night falling, we get a sense of subtle foreboding, of his life slipping away from the speaker). The snow has almost covered the field; only some tall weeds and stubble (which in this context means the cut stalks left from grain plants after the grain has been harvested – basically, straw) are still sticking up from the rising blanket of smooth icy whiteness.

It is in the first line of the second quatrain that we find out that the field is surrounded by woods – a human interruption in the forested landscape. The stubble implies that the field was farmed, but the farmers aren't much in evidence now, and we are told that "the woods around it have it – it is theirs." Again, as with "fast, oh, fast" the repetition lends emphasis to the perception – it's not just that the woods contain the field, but, more forcefully, it is theirs, as if the human interference that put a field there were only a brief interlude in a longer inhuman history. Even the animals we might expect to find in wood or field are "smothered in their lairs" by the falling snow (smothered presumably just means covered over entirely, yet here too there is a hint of death). Nothing is present here but the woods, and the break in them caused by the field, and darkness and snow which are gradually covering everything (and the one human observer, who feels himself present only physically and absent in spirit). It's in the fourth line of this quatrain that the speaker produces the description that ties the whole scene together and explicates it in human terms: loneliness. The word jumps out with such force and is emphasized by repetition so much in the following two lines that you have to wonder if it is not the true, delayed antecedent of the it that the woods are announced in the first line as having.

The speaker declares himself too "absent-spirited" to count in the scene, so absent that his spiritual blankness joins with the scene's prevailing blankness. The loneliness is unaware of him, but I think that unawares also implicitly modifies me: that is, not only is the landscape – the loneliness – unaware of him, but he himself is unaware, at least until he glimpses the field and has a haiku-like moment of perceptive being. And indeed we do not know anything about him, or why he is walking alone through the woods so close to nightfall, or what thoughts were preoccupying him before he glimpsed the field – loneliness gives us the key, since loneliness is a human construction, and therefore projected by him onto the landscape. It's telling that what he sees before him is not just loneliness, but deepening loneliness (it's interesting to contrast this poem with The Snow Man by Wallace Stevens, in which the speaker has a very different relationship to a similar emotion brought on by a similar sight).

In the third quatrain the speaker expresses why the loneliness will become more lonely (until it becomes less, presumably when spring arrives): the snow keeps falling, and the speaker seems to find a kind of terror in the blankness of the blanket of snow covering the weeds and stubble and animals under one undifferentiated white expanse (in this regard it's interesting to remember Chapter XLII of Moby Dick, on "The Whiteness of the Whale": ". . .  there was another thought, or rather vague, nameless horror concerning [Moby Dick], which at times by its intensity completely overpowered all the rest; and yet so mystical and well nigh ineffable was it, that I almost despair of putting it in a comprehensible form. It was the whiteness of the whale that above all things appalled me."). The snow is benighted, which can mean overtaken by darkness, but also a state, usually inducing pity or contempt, of intellectual or moral ignorance. The adjective reinforces the physical description earlier of night falling, and also connects to the covering blankness of the snow, which has no expression because it has nothing to express. It is a nullity, indifferent to his presence: if he lay down in the snow, it would cover him too, and freeze him to death without any conscious ill will or good intentions or any knowledge at all that he was even there).

It is a nullity that terrifies the speaker. He concludes by dismissing any thoughts of being frightened by the vastness of the universe and all those multiple stars empty of and indifferent to human life. Why look so far afield to sense his littleness and isolation? He can find the same fright closer to home (the warm connotations of home stress the contrasting intensity of the terrors, and their inescapability – the blankness will follow him indoors as well). In the last two lines the speaker says "I have it in me . . . / To scare myself with my own desert places." That is, the speaker realizes that the snowy field at dusk has evoked a loneliness and terror that are rooted in him even more than they are in the landscape (as he noted earlier, the snow has no expression and nothing to express; what it evokes in him is something inside him that is his reaction to the blankness). "[M]y own desert places" refers not only to the field (which might be near his home; perhaps he is the farmer who worked the field, and that's why he looked into it in the first place) but also to the "desert places" in his soul. The use of desert is interesting; it means not only desolate, lonely, empty, bleak, but also like a desert, that is, it conjures up a very different landscape from the snowy field. So the word subtly draws attention away from this particular image of isolation – the snowy field at dusk – that prompted the speaker's thoughts and moves your attention towards the underlying sense of arid desolation and loneliness and fear evoked by the sight.

I took this from the Library of America's Collected Poems, Prose, & Plays by Robert Frost.

14 December 2014

Haiku 2014/348

leaves tossed in the wind
(where will I be in a year?)
dramatic clouds pass

13 December 2014

Haiku 2014/347

juicy stalks rising
verdant from the steaming earth:
will the frost spare them

12 December 2014

Haiku 2014/346

a casual glance –
piled clouds, bare branches, black birds –
pitiless beauty

Friday photo 2014/50

detail of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (Chinese: Guanyin), Ming (1368 - 1644) or Qing (1644 - 1911) Dynasty, the Asian Art Museum, San Francisco

11 December 2014

Haiku 2014/345

drifting off to sleep
soft and steady drumming rain
the waters rising

10 December 2014

Haiku 2014/344

brown leaves hanging on
how many will be stripped down
when the next storm hits

09 December 2014

Haiku 2014/343

no one else saw them
cornered in the crowded train
gently holding hands

08 December 2014

Haiku 2014/342

I missed the sun rise
I was busy when it set
It still rose and set

Poem of the Week 2014/50

A Carol

Oh hush thee, my baby,
Thy cradle's in pawn:
No blankets to cover thee
Cold and forlorn.
The stars in the bright sky
Look down and are dumb
At the heir of the ages
Asleep in a slum.

The hooters are blowing,
No heed let him take;
When baby is hungry
'Tis best not to wake.
Thy mother is crying,
Thy dad's on the dole:
Two shillings a week is
The price of a soul.

Cecil Day-Lewis

Years ago I heard John Harbison's cantata The Flight into Egypt (actually, I think I was at the world premiere). He said at the time that he chose that subject because he wanted to focus on the suffering side of the Christmas story: on refugees, and those without homes. That was his reaction to the mean-spirited Reagan years in America. Here's a British poem, written during the Great Depression, that does the same thing. It's an acerbic lullaby that points to the harsh economic realities and the human misery that underlie the image (made picturesque through centuries of glorious paintings, and through our general urban uncertainty as to what exactly a "manger" is) of the Christ child born in a barn. The moral is conveyed through wit, and much of the wit comes from the constant tension between language reminiscent of traditional Christmas carols (particularly Away in a Manger) and contemporary ways of describing poverty. So on the one hand, playing off "the stars in the heavens / look down where he lay/ the little Lord Jesus / asleep in the hay" from the old song we have "the stars in the bright sky / look down and are dumb / at the heir of the ages / asleep"-- only to be brought short by the reminder that the child is in a slum. "The hooters are blowing" has I think "the cattle are lowing" in its background. I assume the hooters are noise-makers or Christmas crackers for the holidays; lowing is the moo-ing sound of cattle, so in both instances there is noise that might wake a baby: in the carol, the point is that the infant Jesus is too angelic to start crying; here, the hope is that the baby won't wake and realize how hungry he is. Two shillings must have been the amount of government assistance per child: it's a meager amount of money, considering that a soul is priceless.

I took this from Christmas Poems, selected and edited by John Hollander and JD McClatchy, in the Everyman's Library Pocket Poet series.

07 December 2014

Haiku 2014/341

faded by the sun
a sky bleached to empty white
dazzling and distant

06 December 2014

Haiku 2014/340

I watched the last leaf
swirling slowly down to earth
and then I moved on

05 December 2014

04 December 2014

Haiku 2014/338

the bus is jam-packed
you've run out of things to read
and this is your life

03 December 2014

Haiku 2014/337

stripped by wind and rain
bright leaves circle each tree trunk
a shower of gold

02 December 2014

Haiku 2014/336

pelted by the rain
grimly dripping a cat waits
to melt into night

01 December 2014

Haiku 2014/335

afterwards we drift
mazey through unnoted streets
missing the music

Poem of the Week 2014/49

To Mrs. K_______, On Her Sending Me an English Christmas Plum-Cake at Paris

What crowding thoughts around me wake,
What marvels in a Christmas-cake!
Ah say, what strange enchantment dwells
Enclosed within its odorous cells?
Is there no small magician bound
Encrusted in its snowy round?
For magic surely lurks in this,
A cake that tells of vanished bliss;
A cake that conjures up to view
The early scenes, when life was new;
When memory knew no sorrows past,
And hope believed in joys that last! –
Mysterious cake, whose folds contain
Life's calendar of bliss and pain;
That speaks of friends for ever fled,
And wakes the tears I love to shed.
Oft shall I breathe her cherished name
From whose fair hand the offering came:
For she recalls the artless smile
Of nymphs that deck my native isle;
Of beauty that we love to trace,
Allied with tender, modest grace;
Of those who, while abroad they roam,
Retain each charm that gladdens home,
And whose dear friendships can impart
A Christmas banquet for the heart!

Helen Maria Williams

I thought I'd segue from Thanksgiving to Christmas with a poem about that essential holiday ingredient: food. Few things summon up remembrance of holidays past like the foods we always eat on those special days. In this case, the memorable item is an English Christmas plum-cake, which is what we also often call a plum-pudding (in British English, pudding covers a much broader range of desserts than in America, where it refers only to a type of creamy custard). It's a heavy cake, baked by steaming, traditionally rich in suet and filled with various dried fruits, like raisins and prunes (plum used to cover a broader range of fruits than what we think of when we hear the word). Perhaps it was the fruits filling the cake that inspired the sort of odd use of cells in line 4: inset in the dark batter, they may have looked in their abundance like the cells that held monks (or prisoners), or even like the cells that make up a honeycomb. The biological meaning might also apply, since Robert Hooke applied the name in 1665, and as you can probably tell from the style, this poem is late eighteenth/early nineteenth century. (Of course, Williams may simply have needed a rhyme for dwells, which caused her to get metaphorical.)

Her recovery of the past through a familiar food anticipates by about a century another Parisian, who tasted a madeleine dipped in a lime-flower infusion and was thereby transported back to his childhood in Combray. In this case she opens the package from her friend and the sight and smell (the odorous cells) of the cake transport her back in time and place: crowding thoughts wake in her; perhaps crowd also brings with it the sense of large numbers of people she used to know. Williams was separated from many of them by more than distance: a political radical and associate of thinkers like Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft, she moved to France during the Revolution (not without danger to herself; though she supported the Revolution's radical goals, she was imprisoned under Robespierre) and lived abroad most of the rest of her life (which ended in 1827). She also had a long relationship (without marriage) with a radical named John Hartford Stone, who left his wife for her. The combination of what was seen as an irregular union with her radical politics alienated many former friends and supporters in England, particularly as the situation in France grew increasingly violent and anarchic, and as it became clear that the wars on the continent would soon involve the British. So the present of a cake meant more than simply a tasty holiday treat: it was a sign of unalienated love and affection when many others had fallen away.

No wonder she finds the cake magical, and wonders if there is a small magician bound / encrusted in its snowy round. That's a delightful image, and makes the cake seem like a small snow-capped mountain range (encrusted can mean covered with a hard surface layer, as of dirt, though there's obviously also a reference to the cake's crust). I like that the magician is bound; it's like something out of a fairytale – the enchanter enchanted – and you feel that he is thereby under control; magic permeates this cake that conjures up visions of happier times and also memories of sorrows, but the magic is not going to get out of hand and become destructive. She finds the cake mysterious in its power, and refers to its folds: a fold can mean an undulation or gentle curve, usually of the earth, but it also is a way of mixing ingredients in cooking; so, as with encrusted, she's punning on the cake as a little world and also reminding us that it's a cake.

Initially she is filled with questions and wonderment at the Christmas cake's strange, unexpected power to transport her back in time and place; then she moves to a contemplation of that past, reflecting that it was a happier, more hopeful time. Then she thinks of sorrows and lost friends (though she seems to be enjoying a pleasing melancholy rather than feeling distraught: tears wake in her, as thoughts did earlier, but these are tears she love[s] to shed). She moves to a long encomium to the friend who sent her the thoughtful gift. I have to say I really love For she recalls the artless smile / Of nymphs that deck my native isle: to me those lines seem echt eighteen-century, and if (the Muses forbid!) all eighteenth-century British poetry were destroyed, you could probably recreate a substantial portion of it with the lyric DNA found in them. For someone who lived such an uncompromising and radical life herself, Williams is almost surprisingly rhapsodic over the tender, modest grace of traditional feminine domestic virtues. She ends with the thought that the true sustenance, the true rich feast, comes not so much from the Christmas cake itself as from the dear friendship it represents.

Usually I link to the book from which I took the poem (hoping some reader might be inspired to make a purchase), but in this case, though I have shelves and shelves of poetry books, they do not contain this poem: I found it on-line. So this is a good chance to mention a terrific resource: the Poetry Foundation website. They have a wide and deep collection of verse, along with detailed biographies of the poets and many interesting articles. It's a great site to keep in mind when you're bored at work and cannot take another minute of the usual social media or news sites, not that I would know anything about that of course. There does not seem to be a handy modern edition of Williams's poetry, but some of her other poems can be found in Eighteenth-Century Women Poets: an Oxford Anthology, edited by Roger Lonsdale. The biographical information I've included here comes from the headnote to Lonsdale's selection of her work. If you enjoyed this poem, you'd probably enjoy that whole anthology – I just want people to buy books! Remember that poetry makes a great gift! Almost as great as an English Christmas plum-cake!