Monday, January 30, 2012

"Sonnet XXX" from Fatal Interview by Edna St. Vincent MIllay

Edna St. Vincent Millay lived hard and recklessly. There wasn't much this woman didn't try during here lifetime. She lived a life of experimentation, poetic and not. If you ever get the chance, her biography Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford is definitely worth the read. The story of her life was difficult to delve into at times because of the extreme contrasts between her highs and lows. One of the most interesting things about her, as well as many who are true poetic artists, is the amazing juxtaposition of her rebellious, reckless life and her technical and precise approach to her poetry,  In Fatal Interview, she crafts 52 sonnets.  The sonnet finds its beauty in the restraint and technical precision needed to craft this type of poem. It is often easy for my students to recognize the technical qualities of a sonnet, but today it was so much fun to get them to dig deep into the artistry of her diction and figurative language and her themes. Here is the text her poem, "Sonnet XXX" or "Love Is Not All."

Sonnet XXX from Fatal Interview

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Love is not all: it is not meat nor drink
Nor slumber nor a roof against the rain; 
Nor yet a floating spar to men that sink 
And rise and sink and rise and sink again; 
Love can not fill the thickened lung with breath, 
Nor clean the blood, nor set the fractured bone; 
Yet many a man is making friends with death 
Even as I speak, for lack of love alone. 
It well may be that in a difficult hour, 
Pinned down by pain and moaning for release, 
Or nagged by want past resolution's power, 
I might be driven to sell your love for peace, 
Or trade the memory of this night for food. 
It well may be. I do not think I would. 

The best part of class today was to see the classes split into two pretty distinct factions. There were those who really "got it." I don't mean they understood the poem. I mean they were able to truly immerse themselves into what the speaker was saying about love. In their own young understanding of love, they truly felt the words of the speaker. We had some good discussion. They stepped up and dug deep. In regards to the speaker, I love how she sets it up as if she is going one direction, flips it, then heads in the completely opposite direction. At first, love is not everything, it does not have the power to sustain life as food, drink, sleep, and shelter do. Love is non-essential. BUT or as the speaker says, "Yet," existence is an empty death-like experience without love. When humans live lacking love, there is no real life. Even in the midst of absolute despair or the depth of need with no resolve or extreme anxious restlessness or starvation, the speaker would not be willing to trade love or the memory of one particular night for any of the things that love was NOT in the beginning of the poem.  Let us remember this. Let us love. Let us not live lives that are tomblike and lonely and empty. Let us reach out and sustain and love one another.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Girl with a Gypsy Soul: Or Coffee with My Brother

I have always resonated with travelers, wanderers, and vagabonds. Roots frighten me. When I was a young girl and I read tales of princesses, I didn't want to be the stereotypical damsel in distress. I wanted to be my own version of a questing princess who didn't just sit around waiting to be rescued but a princess who got the chance to travel the medieval trails on her own adventures. Somewhere along the way that girl got lost. To quote my brother as we sat in a coffee shop the other day, "I just feel as if your story got off track somewhere, Cat. This isn't you. You're in some kind of holding pattern. Your story is stalled, and you need to figure out how to start writing the adventure again." I've been thinking a lot since that conversation. Thousands of other stories and characters and lyrics and movie lines that echo my brother's sentiments have been running through my head since he spoke those words to me. Adventurers, those who live with longing, those who refuse to be content with the status quo, these are my inspiration. So, what am I going to do about it?

Sadly, first I'm going to research...key there, search, and then do it again. I'm okay with simple, but I'm not content with a small life, a small existence. I have hands and feet that need to leave prints behind. About two years ago I wrote this post, and there I talked about finding my roots and not turning from them again anytime soon. I needed roots at that point in my life like I had never needed them before. I needed something to hold me together, to hold me down, to anchor me deep into the ground, deep into the comfortable so to speak. Honestly, it was the only time in my life I have ever felt I needed that kind of stability. I rooted myself into that intense need and planted deep into good soil to find healing. I think I planted too deeply and got lost in the undergrowth.  Hence the holding pattern mentioned by my brother. I'm not sure if my story stalled in spring 2000 when I chose China as the place to travel to for a student exchange instead of choosing a place that more fit me and my talents. Maybe it was when I came home from that student exchange program early because I let the unknown and fear incapacitate me, or did it stall in 2001 when I left Truett Seminary? Did it stall out when I anchored myself into the profession of teaching, first in Central Texas, then Colorado, then North Texas?  I don't know? In these twelve years, I've been restless. I've felt an uneasiness that seemed to subside at times, but never really left me. What I have come to find to be true throughout all of these questions is that I am happiest when I'm traveling, when I'm getting my hands dirty, when I'm meeting a real need, when each morning seems like an adventure waiting to happen, even if the adventure appears insignificant at first glance.

Back to my roots and what I'm doing about them. First of all, this time I'm going back to my roots, but instead of planting them deep in the earth, I'm digging them up, brushing the dirt from them, and pruning them back. I don't know what ANY of this is going to look like, but to be completely cliched about the whole thing, I have one life, one chance to write my story. I can't continue to be stuck in a circular argument. I can't keep reading the same chapter over and over, revising and editing, trying desperately to make the same story work for me. I can't wallow and nestle into comfort and certainty any longer.  

In my youth, thoughts like the ones I type now would be manifestations of me running from something I didn't want to face, something I wanted to hide away from. Such is not the case here. The healing that came from planting my roots deep two years ago has made me stronger. That same strength though has made me hold tightly to what is comfortable. It's time to release the grip on comfort. What do I want to do? What am I going to do? At this point I don't know. It begins with the  search, the search for a way out of the holding pattern.

Friday, January 20, 2012

This Might Be My New Favorite Poem

Through the persistence and insistence of my friend Lori, I have come to discover that I might actually like poetry.  With that being said, she introduced me to Billy Collins, and after purchasing a collection of his poems and the beginnings of a perusal, I discovered this jewel!  I love its indiscretion through subtlety (and then again not so much subtlety) and the way it peels away the layers of Victorian conservatism and prudery as he peels away the layers of her buttoned up lace collar, mother-of-pearl buttoned white dress, and corset!  I've never wanted to be the reclusive Victorian poet from Amherst more!  Although it would need to be someone other than Billy Collins playing the speaker's role:)!!!  And who doesn't conjure up images of Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet in this poetic scene too?!? Awesomeness on the page!

Here it is for your reading pleasure along with some of Dickinson's poems that were part of the inspiration for the Collins verse:

"Taking Off Emily Dickinson's Clothes"
by Billy Collins

First, her tippet of tulle,
easily lifted off her shoulders and laid 
on the back of a wooden chair.

And her bonnet,
the bow undone with a light forward pull.

Then the long white dress, a more
complicated matter with mother-of-pearl
buttons down the back,
so tiny and numerous that it takes forever
before my hands can part the fabric,
like a swimmer's dividing water,
and slip inside.

You will want to know
that she was standing
by an open window in an upstairs bedroom,
motionless, a little wide-eyed,
looking out at the orchard below,
the white dress puddled at her feet
on the wide-board, hardwood floor,

The complexity of women's undergarments
in nineteenth-century America
is not to be waved off,
and I proceeded like a polar explorer
through clips, clasps, and morrings,
catches, straps, and whalebone stays,
sailing toward the iceberg of her nakedness.

Later, I wrote in a notebook
it was like riding a swan into the night,
but, of course, I cannot tell you everything--
the way she closed her eyes to the orchard,
how her hair tumbled free of its pins,
how there were sudden dashes
whenever we spoke.

What I can tell you is
it was terribly quiet in Amherst
that Sabbath afternoon,
nothing but a carriage passing the house
a fly buzzing in a windowpane.

So I could plainly hear her inhale
when I undid the very top
hook-and-eye fastener of her corset

and I could hear her sigh when finally it was unloosed,
the way some readers sigh when they realize
that Hope has feathers,
that Reason is a plank,
That Life is a loaded gun
that looks right at you with a yellow eye.

And now, here are the Emily Dickinson poems inspiring Collin's final stanza, and YES!, the sigh is there on all accounts:

"Hope is a thing with feathers"
by Emily Dickinson

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune--without the words,
And never stops at all,

And sweetest in the gale is heard;
And sore must be the storm
That could abash the little bird
That kept so many warm.

I've heard it in the chillest land,
And on the strangest sea;
Yet, never, in extremity,
It asked a crumb of me.

"I felt a funeral in my brain"
by Emily Dickinson

I felt a funeral in my brain,
        And mourners, to and fro,
Kept treading, treading, till it seemed
        That sense was breaking through.

And when they all were seated,
        A service like a drum
Kept beating, beating, till I thought
        My mind was going numb.

And then I heard them lift a box,
        And creak across my soul
With those same boots of lead,
        Then space began to toll

As all the heavens were a bell,
        And Being but an ear,
And I and silence some strange race,
        Wrecked, solitary, here.

And then a plank in reason, broke,
        And I dropped down and down--
And hit a world at every plunge,
        And finished knowing--then--

"My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun"
by Emily Dickinson

My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun -
In Corners -  till a Day
The Owner passed - identified -
And carried Me away - 

And now We roam in Sovereign Woods - 
And now We hunt the Doe - 
And every time I speak for Him - 
The Mountains straight reply - 

And do I smile, such cordial light
Upon the Valley glow - 
It is as a Vesuvian face - 
Had let its pleasure through - 

And when at Night - Our good Day done - 
I guard My Master's Head - 
'Tis better than Eider-Duck's
Deep Pillow - to have shared - 

To foe of his - I'm deadly foe -
None stir the second time - 
On whom I lay a Yellow Eye - 
Or an emphatic Thumb -

Though I than He - may longer live 
He longer must - than I -
For I have but the power to kill,
Without--the power to die--



Saturday, January 14, 2012

Poems that Reflect My Heart and Perspective at the Moment

Introspection, reflection, meditation, adjustment, courage, gumption--these all define my persona as I share these lines...enjoy!

i am not    done    yet                        
by Lucille Clifton  
as possible as yeast                                
as imminent as bread                                
a collection of safe habits                           
a collection of cares                                          
less certain than i seem                             
more certain than i was                             
a changed changer                                
i continue to continue                                      
where i have been                                      
most of my lives is                                     
where i am going

I dwell in possibility (#657)
by Emily Dickinson

I dwell in Possibility--
A fairer house than Prose--
More numerous of Windows--
Superior--for Doors--

Of Chambers as the Cedars--
Impregnable of Eye--
And for an Everlasting Roof
The Gambrels of the Sky--

Of Visitors--the fairest--
For Occupation--This--
The spreading wide my narrow Hands
To gather Paradise--

May today there be peace within
by Teresa of Avila

May you trust God that you are exactly where you are meant to be
May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith
May you use your gifts that you have received, and pass on the 
       love that
has been given to you...
May you be content knowing you are a child of God...
Let this presence settle into your bones, and allow your soul the
       freedom to
sing, dance, praise and love.                                
It is there for each and every one of us.

May 2
David Lehman

Someday I'd like to
go to Atlantic City with you
not to gamble (just being
there with you is enough
of a gamble) but to ride
the high white breakers
have a Manhattan and listen
to a baritone saxophone
play a tune called "Salsa 
Eyes" with you beside me
on a banquette but why
stop there let's go to 
Paris in November when
it's raining and we read 
the Tribune at La Rotonde
our hotel room has a big
bathtub I knew you'd like
that and we can be a couple 
of unknown Americans what
are we waiting for let's go

Leap Before You Look
by W.H. Auden

The sense of danger must not disappear:
The way is certainly both short and steep,
However gradual it looks from here;
Look if you like, but you will have to leap.

Tough-minded men get mushy in their sleep
And break the by-laws any fool can keep;
It is not the convention but the fear 
That has a tendency to disappear.

The worried efforts of the busy heap,
The dirt, the imprecision, and the beer
Produce a few smart wisecracks every year;
Laugh if you can, but you will have to leap.

The clothes that are considered right to wear
Will not be either sensible or cheap,
As long as we consent to live like sheep
And never mention those who disappear.

Much can be said for social savoir-faire,
But to rejoice when no one else is there
Is even harder than it is to weep;
No one is watching, but you have to leap.

A solitude ten thousand fathoms deep
Sustains the bed on which we lie, my dear:
Although I love you, you will have to leap;
Our dream of safety has to disappear.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Rain on the Roof, Tears Falling Down

I don't know if it's the weather, the winter season, the moment, the images on the screen tonight, the emotions conjured up by the memories, but tears run down my cheeks as I watch Rock Center by Brian Williams.  When you see images flash across your television screen that you have stared down face to face--the poverty, the desolation, the hunger, the tears, but that's not all--the smiles, the laughter, the children singing, the face of a little girl whose hair ribbon was tied around your wrist one summer day and now hangs on your refrigerator door, you can't look into those faces and hear those voices and not be changed.  I am changed because of Haiti.  I see differently.  I love differently.  I confess differently.  I forgive differently.  I understand differently. I cry out differently.  I stumble and fall differently.  And I rise from my ashes differently because I no longer try to do it all myself.  I have learned that their is always a hand holding onto mine when I stand back up and move forward.  There are days my heart hurts because of what I have seen.  It hurts because I have prayed over babies who may not survive.  I have handed food to people who are truly starving.  I have handed medicines as simple as tylenol and vitamins to desperate people who long for healing.  I have stood in the shallows, at the edge of a lake and on the edge of the ocean in two different small villages and looked at the immensity and beauty of my Creator.  But it also hurts because I can still hear the laughter.  I can still feel five little girls crowded in around me to hear the story I read to them in French and to look at its illustrations.  I can feel them sitting in my lap and leaning over both of my shoulders, braiding my hair as I read.  I can still hear voices gathered under the lone tree in a village of grass huts and dirt floors. I went to Haiti for the first time in the summer of 2010 a heartbroken mess.  I'm still a mess, but a place full of such brokenness itself was used to continue the work already started in my heart of working toward healing.  So tonight I say thanks.  Healing comes from unexpected places, and because it has come and continues to come, I offer up my hands and my feet and my heart to be used here, in Haiti, wherever.  The tears that stain my cheeks tonight fall because my heart will never be the same.  They fall to remind me that there is still help to bring.  There is still healing that needs to come.  They fall to remind me to give thanks that I am not wallowing in the mess and ashes instead of seeing and living in the beauty.