Drawing Circles

When I was in high school my dad clipped a passage for me from a book or newspaper. I don’t remember where he got it, and I wish I still had the clipping, which contained a homily about God’s universal love for his children. I do remember that the clipping quoted this short poem by Edwin Markham:

Outwitted

He drew a circle that shut me out–
Heretic, rebel, a thing to flout.
But love and I had the wit to win:
We drew a circle that took him in!

I was shaken last night by this news. I shed some tears, and I know that many people are troubled and grieving. I don’t think it’s my place to weigh in on the specifics of these cases. This post on BCC articulates my feelings pretty well. However, I do have a strong opinion about a disturbing phenomenon I’ve witnessed in internet comments, FB posts, and private conversations: schadenfreude. Glee. Gloating. I find it sickening that anyone would be happy to see a brother or sister leave our ranks. John Donne famously wrote that he felt diminished by any man’s death. We should feel similarly diminished by any loss, no matter how it comes about.

I went for a nice long run this morning and got drenched in the fog. I felt refreshed by the quiet and the beauty of the forest preserve where I run. I recommend it to anyone feeling wounded right now.

As I ran, I kept repeating Markham’s epigram in my mind. I don’t think it’s great poetry. If I encountered it for the first time today, I might dismiss it as sentimental doggerel. But it’s a great sentiment. I’m glad my dad passed it on to me. I want to draw bigger circles, not smaller ones.

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Elizabeth Alexander, “Baby”

K is eight months pregnant with our fourth child. She told me this morning that she dreamed the child came out as big our three-year-old son. She kept holding him and getting confused, wondering, “Am I holding the baby or C?”

K has specialized in bizarro pregnancy dreams ever since 12 years ago, during her first pregnancy, when she dreamed that she had given birth, and the doctor presented her with our first daughter in a casserole dish, tiny and smothered in enchilada sauce.

I thought that was pretty unsettling until a couple of years later, when I read Elizabeth Alexander’s Antebellum Dream Book as part of a graduate seminar on African American poetry. (You might remember Alexander from this.) Among other things, the book collects poems based on dreams that Alexander recorded while she was pregnant, Such as the following:

Baby

The doctor handed me a parfait dish
of melting pink and coffee ice cream
and said, “Congratulations! A girl!”
This bewildered me; I had not been
pregnant, but I kissed the dish and put her
in the deep freeze to see if she’d take shape.
I knew there was a baby in there somewhere,
her tiny arms and legs in vaguest outline.
The doctor frowned, then smiled again:
“Congratulations! A boy!” This one
had a mammoth head and a full set
of teeth. I named the babies Vincent and Louise.
Meanwhile, my father fluttered about
the room and discouraged visitors.
My mother-in-law said, “I made you turkey
breast and rice. You didn’t eat.” My husband
slept deeply on my brother’s bunk bed.
I talked about the dream and later thought
about something someone told me, that
giving birth is all about yourself.
I am formless and fanged, boy and girl both,
food and baby at the very same time.

“Giving birth is all about yourself,” and so, we believe, is dreaming. This poem is so similar to K’s enchilada dream, that I can’t help but wonder how many women dream that their unborn children are food. It would make sense, I guess, life growing inside your belly, some confusion between consumption and cultivation. But that’s all guesswork on my part.

I like how Alexander’s poem expresses the familiar anxiety that expecting parents have about the unknown. We’re experiencing that right now. It’s such a leap of faith to have a child. You don’t know what they’ll be like, what physical, emotional, or spiritual challenges they might have. How their personality will simplify or disrupt your family dynamics. Before the baby is born, he or she is more a mass of anxieties than a real person. That’s why I love it in the poem when she says, “I knew there was a baby in there somewhere, / her tiny arms and legs in vaguest outline.” As inchoate as it might be, the promise that there is a germinating human somewhere behind those anxieties is soothing.

Our Number 4 - NSFW

Our Number 4 – NSFW

I think the poem articulates something very particular to a mother’s experience too, which is the feeling of giving life and simultaneously being consumed and transformed by that little life. When she says, “I am formless and fanged, boy and girl both / food and baby at the very same time,” she is speaking metaphorically but also in some ways literally. I can only imagine the strange paradox of being two bodies in one. If she is having a boy, then she is literally “boy and girl both” for a time. And while she nourishes the fetus (and afterward) she is his food, and he is part of her body.

Finally, I like that the poem is funny. At least, I think it is. Something about that “mammoth head” with a “full set of teeth” captures how terrifying and alien babies are. They’re weird and gross in so many ways, even though they’re also beautiful and sweet. I especially love giant baby heads on floppy baby necks.

And always in these dreams, there’s a doctor who just takes everything in stride. “Ah yes, here’s your baby. She’s an enchilada.” As if it were the most natural thing in the world. The weird thing is, I remember K telling me about that dream, and mostly just feeling hungry.

Czeslaw Milosz, “A Story”

I have to thank my good friend from LA, Peter J., for introducing me to the work of Czeslaw Milosz, a Polish poet who won the 1980 Nobel Prize for Literature. Pete served an LDS mission in Poland and had Milosz’s Collected Poems sitting prominently on his shelf in his living room. I used to pick it up and browse it every once in a while when hanging out at his apartment. Eventually I broke down and got my own copy.

I really like poetry that is fragmentary and minimalist, and Milosz’s poetry is not that. He’s kind of the opposite: discursive and big. His poems unfold in long lines and sentences, and often tell a story. For example,

A Story

Now I will tell Meader’s story; I have a moral in view.
He was pestered by a grizzly so bold and malicious
That he used to snatch caribou meat from the eaves of the cabin.
Not only that. He ignored men and was unafraid of fire.
One night he started battering the door
And broke the window with his paw, so they curled up
With their shotguns beside them, and waited for the dawn.
He came back in the evening, and Meader shot him at close range,
Under the left shoulder blade. Then it was jump and run,
A real storm of a run: a grizzly, Meader says,
Even when he’s been hit in the heart, will keep running
Until he falls down. Later, Meader found him
By following the trail–and then he understood
What lay behind the bear’s odd behavior:
Half of the beast’s jaw was eaten away by an abscess, and caries.
Toothache, for years. An ache without comprehensible reason,
Which often drives us to senseless action
And gives us blind courage. We have nothing to lose,
We come out of the forest, and not always with the hope
That we will be cured by some dentist from heaven.

The title of the poem, “A Story,” and the first line, where the poet promises to tell “Meader’s Story,” at first appear to refer to the same thing. But if this were really Meader’s story, we would expect the “moral” to be something very different, perhaps the importance of not judging another’s actions. Isn’t that what Meader learns, that despite the bear appearing ferocious, in fact its motivations were simple and, tragically, innocent?

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This misdirection is what makes the conclusion of the poem so powerful. That switch to the first-person plural “us” in the fourth-to-last line suddenly thrusts readers into the position of the bear. We no longer imagine ourselves as Meader confronting this dangerous but misunderstood force. Instead, we imagine ourselves as dumb animals, tortured by incomprehensible pain and unable to find relief except in our own deaths. The ending is truly haunting. What are the simple but incomprehensible pains–physical, emotional, or spiritual–that drive us to act the way we act?

Milosz knew something about pain and despair. He was born in 1911 in Lithuania and was part of the resistance against the Nazi occupying forces in Warsaw during WWII, then defected from Communist Poland to France in 1951, later coming to the United States in 1960, where he lived for the remainder of his life. Much of his early poetry deals unflinchingly with the horrors of war, and the difficulty of finding beauty in a world of mass destruction and savage inhumanity. His poetry is deeply moving, and I return to it frequently.

K and I spent many a late night hanging out with Peter, Jean, Mal, Melissa, Joey, Katie, Scott, and Jennie, among many other close friends we made during our six years in LA. I remember endless, ranging conversations about books, movies, religion, parenting, music, and food. This doesn’t have much to do with the poem, except that it feels like a part of Milosz and other poets when I read them, these conversations. I love reading and reflecting on a poem in solitude. But I also love when the poem opens up into an encounter that transforms and deepens a friendship.

César Vallejo’s “Piedra Negra Sobre Una Piedra Blanca”

My daughters like to a play a game in which they propose two different modes of death and ask which one is preferable, as in, “Would you rather fall off a cliff or be burned in a fire?” (Lest this sound too macabre, rest assured that they play endless variations of the game. Would you rather be Harry Potter or Hermione? Would you rather eat peas or dirt?)

I’m always surprised when they play this game at how swiftly and confidently they answer. There’s a kind of rhythm to it, with no beat between the end of the question and the answer, “Fall off a cliff!” And, strangely, they answer in unison, as if they had agreed beforehand that falling were obviously preferable to burning.

Then, of course, there are those moments when things take a darker turn, like one of the kids asking what I would do if their mother died. Or one of them gets sick and spends a sleepless night, and even though I know it’s nothing serious, there’s a nagging anxiety in my mind until the fever breaks or the aching stops or whatever the end looks like.

And I think about my own death sometimes, as I think everyone does. I tend not to imagine the circumstances of my death so much as the aftermath. What will I have left behind? Who or what will miss me? What comes next?

A poem I love takes this as its premise. César Vallejo is one of the most important Latin American poets of the modern era. This is “Piedra Negra Sobre Una Piedra Blanca”:

Me moriré en París con aguacero,
un día del cual tengo ya el recuerdo.
Me moriré en París — y no me corro –
tal vez un jueves, como es hoy, de otoño.

Jueves será, porque hoy, jueves, que proso
estos versos, los húmeros me he puesto
a la mala y, jamás como hoy, me he vuelto,
con todo mi camino, a verme solo.

César Vallejo ha muerto, le pegaban
todos sin que él les haga nada;
le daban duro con un palo y duro

también con una soga; son testigos
los días jueves y los huesos húmeros,
la soledad, la lluvia, los caminos…

Here’s a passable translation, by Robert Bly, “Black Stone Lying on a White Stone”:

I will die in Paris, on a rainy day,
on some day I can already remember.
I will die in Paris–and I don’t step aside–
perhaps on a Thursday, as today is Thursday, in autumn.

It will be a Thursday, because today, Thursday, setting down
these lines, I have put my upper arm bones on
wrong, and never so much as today have I found myself
with all the road ahead of me, alone.

César Vallejo is dead. Everyone beat him
although he never does anything to them;
they beat him hard with a stick and hard also

with a rope. These are the witnesses:
the Thursdays, and the bones of my arms,
the solitude, and the rain, and the roads…

I’ve read that the title of poem comes from the circumstances in which Vallejo wrote it, that he was wearing a black coat and sitting on a white stone bench (see the photograph below). I don’t know if that’s totally reliable, but if it is, I like the way that he becomes the black stone: mute, inanimate, but also enduring.

It’s probably impossible to capture the musicality of Vallejo’s poetry in translation, particularly that repeated end rhyme of the /o/ sound. (This is an adapted sonnet. I don’t know why I write about sonnets so much.) One particular difficulty of the poem is its shift in verb tenses. It moves from the future tense (moriré / I will die) to the present (un día del cual tengo ya el recuerdo / on a day I already remember) to the past (le pegaban todos / everyone beat him). I think Bly’s translation deals with this difficulty as well as you might expect. But the difficulty, the jarring alienation of it, is kind of the point.

The last two stanzas of the poem are undeniably melancholic, but they’re also strangely aspirational. It’s as if Vallejo can’t wait to die because then everyone will recognize his genius, and lament whatever mistreatment he may have received during his life. But this is not a rational existential dread. It’s a new kind of anthropocentrism, whereby the poet’s death reveals that the world really did revolve around him all along.

Of course we want to imagine that our deaths will be tragedies rippling outward through the world. That loneliness, and rain, and roads, and Thursdays will bear witness to our loss. In this sense, Vallejo’s poem resonates with me. But for the same reason, it doesn’t frighten me. A much worse kind of existential dread comes from imagining that our deaths will make no difference at all. What if we die on a sunny day–a Tuesday, say–the birds chirping, the bees humming, and no one notices at all?

Vallejo did die in Paris, by the way, April 15th, 1938. It was a Friday.

Cesar_vallejo_1929_RestauradabyJohnManuel

Gerard Manley Hopkins’s “Pied Beauty”

I love this poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins:

Pied Beauty

Glory be to God for dappled things –
   For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
      For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings;
   Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough;
      And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim.

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
   Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
      With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
                                Praise him.

“Pied Beauty” is multi-colored, or variegated beauty. In essence, this is a poem about the beauty of imperfection. Glory be to God for dappled things, or in other words, spotted things. And the poem goes on to list examples. “Skies of couple-colour” sounds complicated, but it just means skies of mixed colors, as when white clouds are set against a blue background; hence, they are like a “brinded cow” (my auto-correct keeps trying to make it “branded”), or a cow with streaks or spots.

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Then there are the spots “stippled” on a trout, like so,
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a pile of chestnuts glowing like hot embers,
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finches’ wings,
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the beauty of a variegated landscape worked by human hands,
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and the incredible variety of tools workers use to accomplish their trades.
19th_century_work_bench_with_many_tools,_Auckland_-_0858
As this catalogue suggests, the poem is intensely visual, but what I find truly seductive is the relationship between this visual imagery and the incredible sonic beauty of the poem’s language. Hopkins loved Old English, and he attempted to write poems that captured Old English verse’s rhythms and penchant for alliteration and consonance. The words of this poem feel deeply, intimately bound to one another. For example, note that the line ending with “brinded cow” not only rhymes with the line ending with “who knows how?” but that each of those lines centers internally on the alliteration of the hard c sound: couple-colour, cow, fickle, and freckled. Reading the poem aloud is like eating a delicious, hearty meal.

The poem sets out to show us something profound about the world. Hopkins called this form a “curtal sonnet,” or a compact sonnet. Rather than 14 lines, it has only 11, but between the first and second stanzas it does contain a “volta,” or turn. The poem shifts direction. Where the first stanza seems to be about the beauty created by variety and diversity, the second stanza celebrates other kinds of “dappled things.” Hopkins praises things that are “counter, original, spare, and strange,” anything that doesn’t quite fit in, something that Hopkins knew about personally, as a man sexually attracted to other men but also deeply committed to his adopted Catholic faith.

My favorite part of the poem is the idea of things being “freckled” by their inconsistency, the way something might be swift one moment and slow the next, or dazzlingly bright one day and dim the next. Our ideal of beauty tends to center on harmony, wholeness, and consistency, but Hopkins’s poem suggests that we live in a world dominated by dissonance, fragmentation, and change. And that’s the point: the world is beautiful not in spite of these imperfections, but because of them. These “dappled things” have been “fathered-forth” by God.

I read this poem and ask myself what it would mean to perceive not only the beauty of God’s counter, original, spare, and strange creations, but also, and most importantly, the beauty of every fickle and freckled human soul.