Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Edna St. Vincent Millay

I have recently been introduced to the work of one Edna St. Vincent Millay. While this poem did not fit well into ny other post on her poems, I nevertheless was taken by it. It, like so many things I seem to see these days, contains in it some small truths.

Sonnet V: If I should learn

If I should learn, in some quite casual way,
That you were gone, not to return again--
Read from the back-page of a paper, say,
Held by a neighbor in a subway train,
How at the corner of this avenue
And such a street (so are the papers filled)
A hurrying man--who happened to be you--
At noon to-day had happened to be killed,
I should not cry aloud--I could not cry
Aloud, or wring my hands in such a place--
I should but watch the station lights rush by
With a more careful interest on my face,
Or raise my eyes and read with greater care
Where to store furs and how to treat the hair.

Edna St. Vincent Millay

Monday, March 28, 2011

"Had we but world enough, and time"

I met a man yesterday who once loved someone I know, a long time ago. Who he or she is is unimportant. I had never met him before, the love was functionally before my time. By luck, by chance, we met, however, and talked, and he told me some of the story of how he had loved someone I knew. There may have been the word heartbreak used in the telling.
And I could see it in his eyes, some 20 odd years later.
I wonder, now, what it must be like, to be reminded, some 20 odd years later, of a lost love by a chance meeting. What happens, in the mind, for the rest of that day? The rest of that week?
I recounted this story to someone this evening, and the response was to read me a series of poem that touched on the theme of time, and love lost.
I present for you here, Gentle Reader, those poems, both by Edna St. Vincent Millay:


TIME, that renews the tissues of this frame,
That built the child and hardened the soft bone,
Taught him to wail, to blink, to walk alone,
Stare, question, wonder, give the world a name,
Forget the watery darkness whence he came,
Attends no less the boy to manhood grown,
Brings him new raiment, strips him of his own;
All skins are shed at length, remorse, even shame.

Such hope is mine, if this indeed be true,
I dread no more the first white in my hair,
Or even age itself, the easy shoe,
The cane, the wrinkled hands, the special chair:
Time, doing this to me, may alter too
My sorrow, into something I can bear.

Sonnet 02: Time Does Not Bring Relief; You All Have Lied

Time does not bring relief; you all have lied
Who told me time would ease me of my pain!
I miss him in the weeping of the rain;
I want him at the shrinking of the tide;
The old snows melt from every mountain-side,
And last year's leaves are smoke in every lane;
But last year's bitter loving must remain
Heaped on my heart, and my old thoughts abide

There are a hundred places where I fear
To go,—so with his memory they brim
And entering with relief some quiet place
Where never fell his foot or shone his face
I say, "There is no memory of him here!"
And so stand stricken, so remembering him!

And so, having been presented with both these poems by my interlocutor, I wonder, of my meeting yesterday, how does he respond to the memory of his lost love? Does time heal, of have we been lied to?

Of course, I presume, in my romantic haze, that he will think on love lost for the rest of the day, or week. Perhaps he is not the type to do so. Maybe his heart was not a badly broken as I imagine. Perhaps the look in his eyes while relating me the bare bones of the story was "a fragment of an underdone potato" or some such.

Perhaps, Gentle Reader. Perhaps. But I am now richer by two poems, read to me in a voice I long to hear always, a gift. A voice, incidentally, that, in 20 some odd years from now, if absence, will likely inspire my telling the sort of story I heard yesterday.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

"Been a long time comin' and I'll be a long time gone"

I suppose, at the heart of things, we are the sum of our experiences. Perhaps not all of our experiences, as I certainly do not remember them all, and I suspect you do not either. But we are products of our pasts, marked by what has come before as surely as paper is marked by pen.
We learn. We adapt, change, adjust. We forget, but sometimes we remember.
Small things come up from the depth of our minds. snatches of conversation. A moment in a particular place, in the sun, perhaps. A line, in a book, in a story. In a magazine you may not have been supposed to read. The lingering scent of someone who stole an afternoon nap in your bed.
Memory is a tricky thing, but sometimes it serves its purpose. We dredge up some half formed sense of what was, and it becomes real again, an maybe important once more.
A poem, Gentle Reader, before I wrap this up:

Lie back daughter, let your head 
be tipped back in the cup of my hand. 
Gently, and I will hold you. Spread 
your arms wide, lie out on the stream 
and look high at the gulls. A dead- 
man's float is face down. You will dive 
and swim soon enough where this tidewater 
ebbs to the sea. Daughter, believe 
me, when you tire on the long thrash 
to your island, lie up, and survive. 
As you float now, where I held you 
and let go, remember when fear 
cramps your heart what I told you: 
lie gently and wide to the light-year 
stars, lie back, and the sea will hold you.

-Philip Booth

Very well. Why? Allow me to explain. I was sent this poem not long ago by a friend. This friend had read it in high school, some many, many years ago, and never forgot the last line. It reminded this friend of the ocean, a safe place, a warm embrace. My own ocean is cold, but I understand the sentiment.
Upon rediscovering the poem, my friend shared it with me, an act I much appreciate. Now, perhaps, some many years from now, I too can remember some line from it as well, be reminded perhaps of some small truth.
Memory. It is a crazy, wild, powerful thing. It would be well for us all to bear that in mind. And for the reminder, I thank you, friend.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

"Quote yourself word for word"

There is a blog I like, called Letters of Note. Subtitled "Correspondance deserving of a wider audience", it posts letters, notes, postcards and varied forms of messages that the author presumably finds to hold some small truths. Largely, I tend to agree with him, and have on occasion reposted some of the letters here.
Recently, a letter posted there by Chuck Jones got me thinking about reading. Jones writes: "Knowing how to read and not reading books is like owning skiis and not skiing, owning a board and never riding a wave, or, well, having your favorite sandwich in your hand and not eating it."
I have never quite understood people who do not read. Or rather, who never seem to read simply for the enjoyment, the sheer, simple pleasure I so clearly feel when I read. Presuming, of course that I am not reading post-structuralism.
I have known some of these people, and they scare me a bit. There is a chance that I am being elitist, and I suppose I'll run that risk, but I wonder at what these people do with their imagination. In his letter, Chuck say that reading "opens up the universe of humour, of adventure, of romance, of climbing the highest mountain, of diving in the deepest sea." And it does.
I grew up reading, the lucky accident of having a school teacher for a mother and an older sister, herself a voracious reader, who left behind her children's and young adult literature. Luckily, her tastes were not too overtly gendered, and I had both Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys. I still read, for pleasure, despite my studies, which have me reading (less for pleasure, although some academic writing is still pleasant to read) 10, maybe 12 hours some days.
Even so, I read for fun. Readers will know that lately I've been reading children's lit, but vintage Sci-Fi has figured big. Someday soon, I look forward to finishing Treasure Island.
More importantly, I have found people to share my love of reading with, something I think I had lost for a while. I have a friend who hands me his detective fiction, and another with whom I share a newly rediscovered love of poetry, and possibly Neil Gaiman. Maybe this person was behind the whole Peter Pan thing, earlier, as well. Quite inspirational, that one.
I want to be able to say that I can top Mr. Jones, and his letter on reading. I don't think I can. Small truths can be hard to find, and harder then to express. With any luck, and with the help my Muse, God willing I'll manage a few. In the interim, Gentle Reader, perhaps I'll leave you with Chuck's closing words:
"I dare you all, test your strength: Open a book."
I trust that you will.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

On Trains

My mother recently commented on the allure of trains. She may not have meant much by it, but it started me thinking. This is a common problem, it would seem, in my life. Even seemingly throwaway comments set me off on long tangents of thought, where, on occasion, I get lost.
On occasion this is fun. Sometimes, it is problematic.
Nevertheless, trains. I began to think about why, exactly, I like trains.
There are, I think, several reasons. Firstly, there is a very real, very visceral experience when one is close to a train. I presume the new, super high speed trains are different, but the old-school freight and passenger trains I am used to are very big, very loud. You can feel the earth move when the pass by, even slowly, and the noise is deafening. Should they be up to speed, the full effect is overwhelming. This translates surprisingly well to the inside of a passenger train, where both the vibration and noise (both muted) can be quite relaxing.
Beyond the physical experience, however, trains have an important cultural element that still holds much currency, despite the explosion of the automobile culture in post-war North America. In Europe (through the eyes of a North American boy, in any case), the trains moved Sherlock Holmes from London to the moors, to hunt the ghostly hound. They carried one to the east, the Orient Express, heading to the outer fringes of the comfortable, known world. They were a symbol of the Industrial Revolution, with the great boilers pouring black smoke into the sky as they steamed ahead into the future.
In America, the train was something else. It was also the future, but the promise was of the fulfilment of the Manifest Destiny, the American push for the west. The train, in all those westerns, was the link between the old East and the new frontier. The track, laid down over so many barren miles, broke the last barrier of a whole and united country, at least geographically. And the same is true in Canada, where the Prairies and the Rockies made formidable barriers, breached finally by the trains.
On a more personal note, trains for me often represented the link to the outside world. It can be a long trip to my ancestral home, and one of the most comfortable ways to manage it was always the train. It was more spacious than the bus, and not all of us had access to cars. 20 hours on the train was always better than a similar amount of time on the bus. And a lot of people knew it. So if you took the train home, say, the 23rd of December, you'd be on the train with friends, and neighbours, and family, some of whom you may not have seen in quite some time. Trains had social areas, and kitchens, bars, and, if you had the money, beds. The train was how you got home. Also how you left it for the big city.
This is cultural weight, Gentle Reader. This is why, when I hear the train whistle, or feel the deep rumble  close to the track, I invariably pause, in awe. And I dream.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

On Beauty...

I had occasion last night to consider at some length the notion of beauty. Inspired by my Muse to seek entertainment beyond the scope of my usual divertissements, I attended a sung mass, in the medieval style. While I was unsure of the entire endeavour, I counted on my poor tastes in both music and religion to get me through. They did, and I rather enjoyed the entire affair.
I do not understand Latin (in which the mass was sung) and I know virtually nothing of music. I was, for all intents and purposes, a blank slate.
The mass was beautiful.
There is a scene, in The Shawshank Redemption, the movie, not the story (though it might very well be in the story as well. I refer here to the movie), in which Andy Dufresne plays a vinyl of an opera over the prison PA system. The narrator, also a prisoner at Shawshank, Red, says:
"I have no idea to this day what them two Italian ladies were singin' about. Truth is, I don't want to know. Some things are best left unsaid. I like to think they were singin' about something so beautiful it can't be expressed in words, and makes your heart ache because of it. I tell you, those voices soared. Higher and farther than anybody in a gray place dares to dream. It was like some beautiful bird flapped into our drab little cage and made these walls dissolve away...and for the briefest of moments -- every last man at Shawshank felt free."
This how I felt about the mass. The singer's voices seemed to come from nowhere, to fill the church, to soar like songbirds, to reach into deep places. It was beautiful.
Beauty is, of course, not a essential thing to be be described, or delineated. Beauty is culturally constructed, each of us socialized to respond to the same cues, the same stimuli. And the middle ages are a long time gone. Music has changed dramatically since, as was explained to me in some detail by a companion that night. Notions of beauty have changed considerably as well.
But, somewhere, in the morass that is the back of my Western mind, that Latin mass touched something. Transcending history, reaching past time. It touched something that recognized in it a beauty that cannot be expressed in words, that made my heart ache because of it. I felt free.