Monday, March 31, 2008

Metaphor XXX

The Vine

I dreamed this mortal part of mine
Was metamorphosed to a vine,
Which crawling one and every way
Enthralled my dainty Lucia.
Methought her long small legs and thighs
I with my tendrils did surprise;
Her belly, buttocks, and her waist
By my soft nervelets were embraced.
About her head I writhing hung,
And with rich clusters (hid among
The leaves) her temples I behung,
So that my Lucia seemed to me
Young Bacchus ravished by his tree.
My curls about her neck did crawl,
And arms and hands they did enthrall,
So that she could not freely stir
(All parts there made one prisoner),
But when I crept with leaves to hide
Those parts which maids keep unespied,
Such fleeting pleasures there I took
That with the fancy I awoke;
And found (ah me!) this flesh of mine
More like a stock than like a vine.

Robert Herrick, 1648

Isn't that always the way with dreams? You wake up just when you get to the good bits.

Saturday, March 29, 2008



If but some vengeful god would call to me
From up the sky, and laugh: “Thou suffering thing,
Know that thy sorrow is my ecstasy,
That thy love’s loss is my hate’s profiting!”

Then would I bear, and clench myself, and die,
Steeled by the sense of ire unmerited;
Half-eased, too, that a Powerfuller than I
Had willed and meted me the tears I shed.

But not so. How arrives it joy lies slain,
And why unblooms the best hope ever sown?
—Crass Casualty obstructs the sun and rain,
And dicing Time for gladness casts a moan….
These purblind Doomsters had as readily strown
Blisses about my pilgrimage as pain.

Thomas Hardy, 1866.

Does Fate exist, or not? The things that happen to us--the joys, the pains--are they planned for us? Or does Chance rule our lives? It is a much-discussed question, with apparently little common ground between the two factions. But what about the third option? What about making our own fate, our own chances? Isn't that the hardest truth to come across? And the option with the most hope? Because we can't fight either Fate or Chance. But habits and attitudes and choices, those we can influence. We can become aware of them, determine those that are useful and those that block our way. And when we are aware, can we not weed out the bad and harbor the good?

It's a lot more work than just accepting Fate or Chance. It requires a clear eye and vigilant conscience. It carries risk of dissatisfaction of oneself and recriminations with it. But what greater reward is won, knowing what we have is due to our own actions, our own decisions.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008


The Raven

Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore,
While I nodded, nearly napping, suddenly there came a tapping,
As of some one gently rapping, rapping at my chamber door.
`'Tis some visitor,' I muttered, `tapping at my chamber door -
Only this, and nothing more.'

Ah, distinctly I remember it was in the bleak December,
And each separate dying ember wrought its ghost upon the floor.
Eagerly I wished the morrow; - vainly I had sought to borrow
From my books surcease of sorrow - sorrow for the lost Lenore -
For the rare and radiant maiden whom the angels named Lenore -
Nameless here for evermore.

And the silken sad uncertain rustling of each purple curtain
Thrilled me - filled me with fantastic terrors never felt before;
So that now, to still the beating of my heart, I stood repeating
`'Tis some visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door -
Some late visitor entreating entrance at my chamber door; -
This it is, and nothing more,'

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
`Sir,' said I, `or Madam, truly your forgiveness I implore;
But the fact is I was napping, and so gently you came rapping,
And so faintly you came tapping, tapping at my chamber door,
That I scarce was sure I heard you' - here I opened wide the door; -
Darkness there, and nothing more.

Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there wondering, fearing,
Doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before
But the silence was unbroken, and the darkness gave no token,
And the only word there spoken was the whispered word, `Lenore!'
This I whispered, and an echo murmured back the word, `Lenore!'
Merely this and nothing more.

Back into the chamber turning, all my soul within me burning,
Soon again I heard a tapping somewhat louder than before.
`Surely,' said I, `surely that is something at my window lattice;
Let me see then, what thereat is, and this mystery explore -
Let my heart be still a moment and this mystery explore; -
'Tis the wind and nothing more!'

Open here I flung the shutter, when, with many a flirt and flutter,
In there stepped a stately raven of the saintly days of yore.
Not the least obeisance made he; not a minute stopped or stayed he;
But, with mien of lord or lady, perched above my chamber door -
Perched upon a bust of Pallas just above my chamber door -
Perched, and sat, and nothing more.

Then this ebony bird beguiling my sad fancy into smiling,
By the grave and stern decorum of the countenance it wore,
`Though thy crest be shorn and shaven, thou,' I said, `art sure no craven.
Ghastly grim and ancient raven wandering from the nightly shore -
Tell me what thy lordly name is on the Night's Plutonian shore!'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

Much I marvelled this ungainly fowl to hear discourse so plainly,
Though its answer little meaning - little relevancy bore;
For we cannot help agreeing that no living human being
Ever yet was blessed with seeing bird above his chamber door -
Bird or beast above the sculptured bust above his chamber door,
With such name as `Nevermore.'

But the raven, sitting lonely on the placid bust, spoke only,
That one word, as if his soul in that one word he did outpour.
Nothing further then he uttered - not a feather then he fluttered -
Till I scarcely more than muttered `Other friends have flown before -
On the morrow he will leave me, as my hopes have flown before.'
Then the bird said, `Nevermore.'

Startled at the stillness broken by reply so aptly spoken,
`Doubtless,' said I, `what it utters is its only stock and store,
Caught from some unhappy master whom unmerciful disaster
Followed fast and followed faster till his songs one burden bore -
Till the dirges of his hope that melancholy burden bore
Of "Never-nevermore."'

But the raven still beguiling all my sad soul into smiling,
Straight I wheeled a cushioned seat in front of bird and bust and door;
Then, upon the velvet sinking, I betook myself to linking
Fancy unto fancy, thinking what this ominous bird of yore -
What this grim, ungainly, ghastly, gaunt, and ominous bird of yore
Meant in croaking `Nevermore.'

This I sat engaged in guessing, but no syllable expressing
To the fowl whose fiery eyes now burned into my bosom's core;
This and more I sat divining, with my head at ease reclining
On the cushion's velvet lining that the lamp-light gloated o'er,
But whose velvet violet lining with the lamp-light gloating o'er,
She shall press, ah, nevermore!

Then, methought, the air grew denser, perfumed from an unseen censer
Swung by Seraphim whose foot-falls tinkled on the tufted floor.
`Wretch,' I cried, `thy God hath lent thee - by these angels he has sent thee
Respite - respite and nepenthe from thy memories of Lenore!
Quaff, oh quaff this kind nepenthe, and forget this lost Lenore!'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

`Prophet!' said I, `thing of evil! - prophet still, if bird or devil! -
Whether tempter sent, or whether tempest tossed thee here ashore,
Desolate yet all undaunted, on this desert land enchanted -
On this home by horror haunted - tell me truly, I implore -
Is there - is there balm in Gilead? - tell me - tell me, I implore!
'Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

`Prophet!' said I, `thing of evil! - prophet still, if bird or devil!
By that Heaven that bends above us - by that God we both adore -
Tell this soul with sorrow laden if, within the distant Aidenn,
It shall clasp a sainted maiden whom the angels named Lenore -
Clasp a rare and radiant maiden, whom the angels named Lenore?'
Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

`Be that word our sign of parting, bird or fiend!' I shrieked upstarting -
`Get thee back into the tempest and the Night's Plutonian shore!
Leave no black plume as a token of that lie thy soul hath spoken!
Leave my loneliness unbroken! - quit the bust above my door!
Take thy beak from out my heart, and take thy form from off my door!
'Quoth the raven, `Nevermore.'

And the raven, never flitting, still is sitting, still is sitting
On the pallid bust of Pallas just above my chamber door;
And his eyes have all the seeming of a demon's that is dreaming,
And the lamp-light o'er him streaming throws his shadow on the floor;
And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor
Shall be lifted - nevermore!

Edgar Allen Poe, 1845

I saw an odd thing today. A crow, in the face of a strong westerly wind, flapping his strong wings with all his might, flying backwards. He traveled twenty or thirty feet the wrong way, vainly trying to fight the wind, and losing. Suddenly, he tipped his wings, dropped sideways ten feet or so, and flapped again. He had freed himself from the current of wind, and he flew forward again. I wonder how long I might try to fly in the face of the wind, making backward progress, before I think to rest a bit, to reposition, and try again from a fresh angle. How long it might take me to realize flying straight forward does not always mean forward progress is made.

Sunday, March 23, 2008


Loveliest of trees, the cherry now

Lovliest of trees, the cherry now
Is hung with bloom along the bough,
And stands about the woodland ride
Wearing white for Eastertide.

Now, of my threescore years and ten,
Twenty will not come again,
And take from seventy springs a score,
It only leaves me fifty more.

And since to look at things in bloom
Fifty springs are little room,
About the woodlands I will go
To see the cherry hung with snow.

A. E. Housman, 1896

Here in Wisconsin, thanks to a snow storm on Friday, the cherry trees are hung with literal snow, and blossom season seems far away. It will not be long, however, before this latest batch of snow melts away and runs off into the streams. Then the skunk cabbage will sprout and the pussy willows will bud. Soon after, the marsh marigolds will appear in the spring beds, clumps of yellow in the wet ground. And I will walk in the maple woods, and spy the hepatica, blooming clear blue and purple at the base of the oldest trees. One day I will look up and see the pale yellow-green new leaves of the quaking aspen against a blue sky, and I will spot an oriole or a tanager. Then, suddenly, I will not have to look for these tiny signs of spring. They will be everywhere I look: the waves of delicate spring beauties, and trilliums, and bloodroot, and amenomes, laid out in a white carpet on the forest floor. And the yellows of the forsythia and the bellwort and even the dandelions will reflect the yellow slant of the sun. The purples and blues and pinks of violets and cranesbill and columbine and dame's rocket will show off the new green of the understory, and the woods will be filled with birdsong and the rustling of leaves in the breeze.

I know this will happen because I have seen it happen every year for 37 years. If I am indeed granted three-score year and ten, then I only have 33 more springs to bear witness to this miracle. And that does not seem near enough time to fill myself with that beauty.

Monday, March 17, 2008

An Irish Poet for an Irish Day

When You Are Old

When you are old and gray and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon the mountains overhead
And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

William Butler Yeats, 1893

I think of this poem as a sort of last-ditch effort of the poet to win the heart of his love. If it had been written to me, it probably would have worked. Who would not prefer to be loved for one's soul, whether young or old, than one's beauty?

Thursday, March 13, 2008


I Saw in Louisiana a Live-Oak Growing

I saw in Lousiana a live-oak growing,
All alone stood it and the moss hung down from the branches,
Without any companion it grew there uttering joyous leaves of
       dark green,

And its look, rude, unbending, lusty, made me think of myself,
But I wonder'd how it could utter joyous leaves standing alone
      there without its friend near, for I knew I could not,

And I broke off a twig with a certain number of leaves upon it,
      and twined around it a little moss,

And brought it away, and have placed it in sight in my room,
It is not needed to remind me as of my own dear friends,
(For I believe lately I think of little else than them,)
Yet it remains to me a curious token, it makes me think of manly

For all that, and though the live-oak glistens there in Louisiana
      solitary in a wide flat space,

Uttering joyous leaves all its life without a friend a lover near,
I know very well I could not.

Walt Whitman 1860

Lately I, too, have thought of little else than my friends. Friends near and far, some known to me for decades, others only months, friends who have cried with me, and laughed with me, those who have supported me, and those to whom I have lent what support I could--I hold them all in my head and my heart. In times of celebration and contentment, I take joy in their happiness, in times of fear and anxiety, I offer my ear, hoping to soothe them, and in times of loss and sorrow, I mourn with them in hope that they feel less alone. The friendship they have offered me in return gives me the strength and the desire to utter my own joyous leaves. Without them, my branches would be bare.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Still Seduced

Lady Midnight

I came by myself to a very crowded place;
I was looking for someone who had lines in her face.
I found her there but she was past all concern;
I asked her to hold me, I said, "lady, unfold me,"
But she scorned me and she told me
I was dead and I could never return.

Well, I argued all night like so many have before,
Saying, "Whatever you give me, I seem to need so much more."
Then she pointed at me where I kneeled on her floor,
She said, "Don’t try to use me or slyly refuse me,
Just win me or lose me,
It is this that the darkness is for."

I cried, "Oh, lady midnight, I fear that you grow old,
The stars eat your body and the wind makes you cold."
"If we cry now," she said, "it will just be ignored."
So I walked through the morning, sweet early morning,
I could hear my lady calling,
"You’ve won me, you’ve won me, my lord"

Leonard Cohen, 1968

Still obsessing, slightly. I love the imagery here, especially the stars eat your body. Pure poetry.

Monday, March 3, 2008


Take This Longing

Many men have loved the bells
you fastened to the rein,
and everyone who wanted you
they found what they will always want again.
Your beauty lost to you yourself
just as it was lost to them.
Oh take this longing from my tongue,
whatever useless things these hands have done.
Let me see your beauty broken down
like you would do for one you love.

Your body like a searchlight
my poverty revealed,
I would like to try your charity until you cry,
"Now you must try my greed."
And everything depends upon
how near you sleep to me
Just take this longing from my tongue
all the lonely things my hands have done.
Let me see your beauty broken down
like you would do for one you love.

Hungry as an archway
through which the troops have passed,
I stand in ruins behind you,
with your winter clothes,
your broken sandal straps.
I love to see you naked over there
especially from the back.

Oh take this longing from my tongue,
all the useless things my hands have done,
untie for me your hired blue gown,
like you would do for one that you love.

You're faithful to the better man,
I'm afraid that he left.
So let me judge your love affair
in this very room where I have sentenced
mine to death.
I'll even wear these old laurel leaves
that he's shaken from his head.

Just take this longing from my tongue,
all the useless things my hands have done,
let me see your beauty broken down,
like you would do for one you love.

Like you would do for one you love

Leonard Cohen, 1974

I have a tendency, when discovering a new author or poet, to immerse myself, to the point of near-obsession. Leonard Cohen, songwriter and singer, had escaped my notice until a few months ago, when lizarddrinking posted a song of his on her blog. I was mildly intrigued, but did not follow up. Then, a few weeks later, he cropped up again, mentioned by another friend, as the writer for the sublime song Hallelujah. I was seduced by the longing and emotion of the song, and had to check out the original. And so I was hooked. Now, a few weeks later, his songs are still haunting me. In general, they are sparse and straightforward, and his singing is almost deadpan and unmelodic, but the emotion in the lyrics draws me in further and further. Love and longing, bitterness and joy, whimsy and anger--they are all there and more. It would be impossible to pick a favorite, but Take This Longing is certainly in the running. It has been quite a while since I was so taken by music, and I am enjoying giving in to the seduction.

Saturday, March 1, 2008



I taste a liquor never brewed--
From Tankards scooped in Pearl--
Not all the Vats upon the Rhine
Yield such an Alcohol!

Inebriate of Air--am I--
And Debauchee of Dew--
Reeling--thro endless summer days--
From inns of Molten Bue--

When "Landlords" turn the drunken Bee
Out of the Foxglove's door--
When Butterflies--renounce their "drams"--
I shall but drink the more!

Till Seraphs swing their snowy Hats--
And Saints--to windows run--
To see the little Tippler
Leaning against the--Sun--

Emily Dickinson, 1860

Today, it is still cold, it is still winter, but the sun is blazing forth and I am drinking it in. I soon will be getting tipsy upon flowers and birdsong. Spring is near.