Levertov Week: To the Muse

To the Muse

I have heard it said,
and by a wise man,
that you are not one who comes and goes

but having chosen
you remain in your human house,
and walk

in its garden for air and the delights
of weather and seasons.

Who builds
a good fire in his hearth
shall find you at it
with shining eyes and a ready tongue.

Who shares
even water and dry bread with you
will not eat without joy

and wife or husband
who does not lock the door of the marriage
against you, finds you

not as unwelcome third in the room, but as
the light of the moon on flesh and hair.

He told me, that wise man,
that when it seemed the house was
empty of you,

the fire crackling for no one,
the bread hard to swallow in solitude,
the gardens a tedious maze,

you were not gone away
but hiding yourself in secret rooms.
The house is no cottage, it seems,

it has stairways, corridors, cellars,
a tower perhaps,
unknown to the host.

The host, the housekeeper, it is
who fails you.  He had forgotten

to make room for you at the hearth
or set a place for you at the table
or leave the doors unlocked for you.

Noticing you are not there
(when did he last see you?)
he cries out you are faithless,

have failed him,
writes you stormy letters demanding you return
it is intolerable

to maintain this great barracks without your presence,
it is too big, it is too small, the walls
menace him, the fire smokes

and gives off no heat.  But to what address
can he mail the letters?
And all the while

you are indwelling,
a gold ring lost in the house.
A gold ring lost in the house.
You are in the house!

Then what to do to find the room where you are?
Deep cave of obsidian glowing with red, with green, with black light,
high room in the lost tower where you sit spinning,

crack in the floor where the gold ring
waits to be found?

                                No more rage but a calm face,
trim the fire, lay the table, find some
flowers for it: is that the way?
Be ready with quick sight to catch
a gleam between the floorboards,

there, where he had looked
a thousand times and seen nothing?
                                              Light of the house,

the wise man spoke
words of comfort.  You are near,
perhaps you are sleeping and don’t hear.

Not even a wise man
can say, do thus and thus, that presence
will be restored.
                            Perhaps

a becoming aware a door is swinging, as if
someone had passed through the room a moment ago – perhaps
looking down, the sight
of the ring back on its finger?

 
How heartening this is, even though inspiration is never guaranteed.  Keep turning ideas over in your head, and beauty in your eyes, and words in your mouth.  Go about your day, keep at your work, show up on time and make sure the muse knows where to find you: thread-worn but intact advice.

It reassures me in other directions as well.  “When it seemed…the fire [was] crackling for no one, / the bread hard to swallow in solitude, / the gardens a tedious maze,” the muse is still there.  When I am only writing to myself, when I set out my thoughts and no one engages with them, that act of utterance remains needful for me and beneficial to all conversations that come later.

The conceit of the soul-house, particularly the difficulty of maintaining the ‘great barracks’ without assistance, rather reminds me of David Wilcox’s “That’s What the Lonely is For.”  In both cases, one finds that the house is more extensive than anticipated: initially inconvenient, but not without design.

Should you be seeking a muse to sing to you, I hope you find that ring on your own finger.

Levertov Week: Annuals

Annuals

All I planted came up,
balsam and nasturtium and
cosmos and the Marvel of Peru

first the cotyledon
then thickly the differentiated
true leaves of the seedlings,

and I transplanted them,
carefully shaking out each one’s
hairfine rootlets from the earth,

and they have thriven,
well-watered in the new-turned earth;
and grow apace now –

but not one shows signs of a flower,
not one.
                  If August passes
flowerless,
and the frosts come,

will I have learned to rejoice enough
in the sober wonder of
green healthy leaves?

 

As they say: #mood.  To piggyback on yesterday’s poem and my own reality…what do you make of your life if you don’t find yourself bearing any flower, much less fruit?  Do you redefine green healthy leaves as a sort of success?

This is the question threaded through my search for a single story, the question I am asking every tired workday, the thing I wonder every lonesome bednight.  All my uhtceare and self-analysis and storytelling wrap around this question: what is the point?  What am I here for, what am I doing?

Again, as Levertov’s “The Old Adam” puts it:

Where is my life? Where is my life?
What have I done with my life?

Levertov Week: The Ache of Marriage

Sometimes I get impatient with poetry about married life, because I’m doing my best not to be bitterly single, and failing.

Sometimes it’s a pleasant sort of pain, to catch any glimpse of what it’s like.

 

The Ache of Marriage

The ache of marriage:

thigh and tongue, beloved,
are heavy with it,
it throbs in the teeth

We look for communion
and are turned away, beloved,
each and each

It is leviathan and we
in its belly
looking for joy, some joy
not to be known outside it

two by two in the ark of
the ache of it.

 

I’m sharing it mostly because it’s a poem within a poem to me:  “looking for joy, some joy / not to be known outside it.”  My life in a nutshell, really.  Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

Levertov Week: The Thread

In the interest of posting again, ever, I thought I’d share some poems by Denise Levertov this week (and possibly next week as well).

I first encountered her poetry through friends from undergrad – denizens of the Wake and Donnybrook – sharing “The Servant Girl at Emmaus” and “St. Thomas Didymus.”  These prompted me to look for more of her work.

Generally speaking, Levertov is valued by many for her more political work – opposition to the Vietnam and Persian Gulf Wars, social concerns, nuclear disarmament – whereas my friends and I are generally more interested in her framing of the sacred (both before and after her conversion to Catholicism).

Today’s poem is, I think, an example of that: one long allusion to Chesterton’s Father Brown, or to its notable quotation by Cordelia Flyte in Brideshead Revisited.

But God won’t let them go for long, you know. I wonder if you remember the story Mummy read us the evening Sebastian first got drunk — I mean, the bad evening. Father Brown said something like ‘I caught him’ (the thief) ‘with an unseen hook and an invisible line which is long enough to let him wander to the ends of the world and still to bring him back with a twitch upon the thread.’

The Thread

Something is very gently,
invisibly, silently,
pulling at me – a thread
or net of threads
finer than cobweb and as
elastic. I haven’t tried
the strength of it. No barbed hook
pierced and tore me. Was it
not long ago this thread
began to draw me? Or
way back? Was I
born with its knot about my
neck, a bridle? Not fear
but a stirring
of wonder makes me
catch my breath when I feel
the tug of it when I thought
it had loosened itself and gone.

Review: Poetry in Michigan in Poetry

It seems strange to me, how many of these poems wind around death: by drowning, by black ice, a riot, drowning, shipwreck, drowning.

I suppose I still drive with the casual recklessness of one still too young to feel properly mortal,
and moreover, have not frequented rivers or lakes as much as one might,
and as such,
I have never regarded Michigan as, chiefly, the place that might well kill me.

Ten out of ten people die, after all:
in Texas, or Finland, or deep corners of close communities in Greece,
no matter how long that last death takes

(though that IS, perhaps, the matter, when black ice kills an undergrad –
perhaps the loud clear silences of grief float to the top,
the cream of all our poetic impulses)

– anyway, though Death surrounds us all and always,
it’s always seemed gentler here than otherwhere:
the nation’s, the world’s
earthquakes, hurricanes, wildfires, tornadoes,
flash floods deeper than a broken sump pump’s 4 inches of water,
and calling Belfor to rid you of boxes
buried in your basement 20 years or more.

Of course the water can kill you
(Flint, anyone?  that
is what you call ironic)

but don’t forget that,
generally,
it enables you to live, first.

O Dies Propitie!

A most felicitous 13th of June to you all!

Today happens to be the 37th birthday of Chris Evans, and my parents’ 37th wedding anniversary.

But more significantly, where this blog is concerned…

We have noted that this is the birthday of Dorothy Sayers: academic, playwright, essayist, novelist; thinker, wordsmith, professor of the Christian faith; and inspiration for this blog, such as it is in this 8th year.

Given that she was born in 1893, this is the 125th anniversary of her birth: her quasquicentennial!

That being the case, it is good, right, and salutary to share some of my favorite lines of hers – possibly for the second or third time, but no less delightful for it!

 

“I think my mother’s talents deserve a little acknowledgement. I said so to her, as a matter of fact, and she replied in these memorable words: “My dear child, you can give it a long name if you like, but I’m an old-fashioned woman and I call it mother-wit, and it’s so rare for a man to have it that if he does you write a book about him and call him Sherlock Holmes.”
Clouds of Witness

“Still, it doesn’t do to murder people, no matter how offensive they may be.”
Five Red Herrings

“Do you know how to pick a lock?”
“Not in the least, I’m afraid.”
“I often wonder what we go to school for,” said Wimsey.”
Strong Poison

“Well, we’ve only just got back from Ithaca. Bob is fearfully excited about a new set of burial-places, and has evolved an entirely original and revolutionary theory about funerary rites. He’s writing a paper that contradicts all old Lam-bard’s conclusions, and I’m helping by toning down his adjectives and putting in deprecatory footnotes. I mean, Lam-bard may be a perverse old idiot, but it’s more dignified not to say so in so many words. A bland and deadly courtesy is more devastating, don’t you think?”
“Infinitely.”
Here at any rate was somebody who had not altered by a hair’s-breadth, in spite of added years and marriage. Harriet was in a mood to be glad of that. After an exhaustive inquiry into the matter of funerary rites, she asked after the family.

“Do you find it easy to get drunk on words?”
“So easy that, to tell you the truth, I am seldom perfectly sober.”

“How fleeting are all human passions compared with the massive continuity of ducks!”

“The only ethical principle which has made science possible is that the truth shall be told all the time. If we do not penalize false statements made in error, we open up the way for false statements by intention. And a false statement of fact, made deliberately, is the most serious crime a scientist can commit.”

– all from Gaudy Night

Probably no man has ever troubled to imagine how strange his life would appear to himself if it were unrelentingly assessed in terms of his maleness; if everything he wore, said, or did had to be justified by reference to female approval; if he were compelled to regard himself, day in day out, not as a member of society, but merely (salva reverentia) as a virile member of society.
…He would be edified by solemn discussions about “Should Men Serve in Drapery Establishments?” and acrimonious ones about “Tea-Drinking Men”; by cross-shots of public affairs “from the masculine angle,” and by irritable correspondence about men who expose their anatomy on beaches (so masculine of them), conceal it in dressing-gowns (too feminine of them), think about nothing but women, pretend an unnatural indifference to women, exploit their sex to get jobs, lower the tone of the office by their sexless appearance, and generally fail to please a public opinion which demands the incompatible. And at dinner-parties he would hear the wheedling, unctuous, predatory female voice demand: “And why should you trouble your handsome little head about politics?”
If, after a few centuries of this kind of treatment, the male was a little self-conscious, a little on the defensive, and a little bewildered about what was required of him, I should not blame him. If he traded a little upon his sex, I could forgive him. If he presented the world with a major social problem, I would scarcely be surprised. It would be more surprising if he retained any rag of sanity and self-respect.
– “The Human-Not-Quite-Human,” Are Women Human?: witty and astute essays on the role of women in society

“Has it ever struck you as odd, or unfortunate, that today, when the proportion of literacy is higher than it has ever been, people should have become susceptible to the influence of advertisement and mass propaganda to an extent hitherto unheard of and unimagined?”
– “The Lost Tools of Learning”

“It is hopeless to offer Christianity as a vaguely idealistic aspiration of a simple and consoling kind; it is, on the contrary, a hard, tough, exacting, and complex doctrine, steeped in a drastic and uncompromising realism. And it is fatal to imagine that everybody knows quite well what Christianity is and needs only a little encouragement to practice it. The brutal fact is that in this Christian country not one person in a hundred has the faintest notion what the Church teaches about God or man or society or the person of Jesus Christ.”
– “Creed or Chaos?: Why Christians Must Choose Either Dogma or Disaster”

“In the world it is called Tolerance, but in hell it is called Despair. It is the accomplice of the other sins and their worst punishment. It is the sin that believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and remains alive because there is nothing for which it will die.”
– “The Other Six Deadly Sins”

Last, but certainly not least:

“The Egotists’ Club is one of the most genial places in London. It is a place to which you may go when you want to tell that odd dream you had last night, or to announce what a good dentist you have discovered. You can write letters there if you like, and have the temperament of a Jane Austen, for there is no silence room, and it would be a breach of club manners to appear busy or absorbed when another member addresses you.”
– “The Abominable History of the Man with Copper Fingers”

Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

This book has been on my to-read list for ages, and got bumped up a few spots by the creation of the Hulu miniseries – not that I necessarily want to watch the show, you understand, but because I want to be familiar with the story should it come up indiscussion.

I ripped through nearly 400 pages in a day, which indicates handmaids talethat my brain is getting up to former speeds, or it’s a very compelling book, or both.  Atwood’s prose is verbal titanium: light, swift, easy to comprehend; but strong, sturdy, full of ideas to unpack.

I’d seen it called dystopian, science fiction, or speculative fiction, and wondered about that; the book cover I’d seen most often seemed to depict a white mouse in a red dress in a castle, which didn’t seem to fit any such categories.  But, in fact, it is a woman required to wear red clothing and a vision-obscuring white hat, passing the wall where the day’s political dead are hung on hooks as an example (though these, thankfully, are not shown on the cover as well).

The book’s premise: the American birthrate had fallen below replacement level, due to both the usual suspects (birth control, abortion, infertility, disease) and some unusual ones (genetic deformities, stillbirths, and miscarriages brought on by the combined effects of nuclear waste, biochemical weapons, toxic dumping, pesticide, etc.).  Against such a backdrop, a cultish cabal of right-wing theonomists (or something like) assassinates the President and Congress, wresting control amid the resulting martial law; they quickly illegalize women holding either jobs or property; and women young and healthy enough to bear children are captured and herded into “re-education centers,” before being assigned to families of sufficiently high rank but sufficiently few offspring.

The protagonist – known by the patronymic “Offred” as she cannot use her real name in Fred, “the Commander’s” household – reveals her earlier life in snatches: her mother had raised her alone, Moira was her best friend, she’d been a man’s mistress and later his wife, they had a daughter; one day she lost her job and access to her bank account; she and Luke attempted to flee (from Boston or thereabouts) to Canada, at which point she was captured and brought to the Red Center; and throughout her time as a handmaid, she wonders where Luke might be, simultaneously believing that he’s escaped and that he’s dead.

Day-to-day existence involves guarding her tongue around everyone, as other handmaids might be spying for the Guardians or Eyes; buying household supplies using pictograms, since women aren’t allowed to read; checking the wall to see if Luke’s body has been hooked on it; periodically reading the words Nolite te bastardes carborundorum where they are carved into the bottom of her wardrobe; and literally lying in the lap of Serena Joy, the Commander’s wife, while the Commander copulates with her – thus acting as Serena Joy’s ‘handmaid.’   Kind of like the Biblical story of Jacob, Rachel, and Rachel’s maid Bilhah, except several degrees creepier.  Handmaids who successfully conceive, come to term, and bear a healthy child (a rarity) are given more respect and privileges, if not the freedom that existed before Gilead: the (municipality? region? country? I don’t believe this is made clear) that has been created in the wake of the United States.

I expected the book to be nothing but an attack: an attack on Christians; an attack on traditional values; a story that, above all, insisted that women not be subject to the original nature of their own bodies; a defense of ‘reproductive freedom’ that condemned anyone who wanted to get pregnant and bear children.

Some might still read it that way.  The Biblical quotations used (and how they are twisted) have surely misled many people who know nothing else about Christianity or the Bible to believe that the whole faith hates women and seeks only to cast and keep them down.  There are surely people who think the Sons of Jacob enact what Christians believe, and sadly there are enough different denominations out there that for a handful of people, it might be true.  But I expect that most Christians find The Handmaid’s Tale as outrageous and terrifying a world as any secular reader.

To my eyes, as written, this story is not an attack on pregnancy or motherhood per se; some of the most moving parts of the novel are those moments where Offred remembers her husband and her child.  She wants her former freedoms, yes, but she also wants to be held, to be known, to be loved.  She wants to see how big her 8-year-old has gotten, wants to mother her instead of whatever stranger has claimed that privilege.  Meanwhile, there comes a point where Offred plays the Commander’s mistress rather than a mere vessel for his seed.  What does he want with her?  A kiss (like she means it); to look over now-forbidden magazines; to see her in now-forbidden clothing; and most hilariously, to play games of Scrabble.  He wants company, and has to creep about after midnight to get it: a sad state for the men, too, if not anywhere as horrifying as mandated rape.

The story Offred shares is what she and the other handmaids undergo.  What she is not in a position to share is how exactly it got that way.  Who started this unChristlike initiative?  If the birthrate is what actually matters, why entrust the begetting solely to the higher-ranking but less fertile men?  Who demanded this amount of power, backing it up with a private military force with lots and lots of guns?  How extensive is Gilead, and how long could it possibly last before the biggest revolution in history occurs?

As in any dystopia, the power behind the curtain is shadowy at best.  Presumably the TV series will provide answers, carefully chosen to resemble current political figures more closely.  All we can know from reading the book is that Gilead cannot last, except in the studies of later scholars who themselves study the handmaid’s tale.

Reactions: Macbeth

Y’all know me.  There’s still so much that I haven’t read, despite the passing years and my unending reading list.  I’d never read Macbeth before this week, and still haven’t seen it performed.

There are probably others in this same boat, and yet I figure that it’s a familiar enough play that what follows is a casual assemblage of thoughts rather than a proper summary or review.

To start with: I don’t feel guilty for having missed MacScottishplay until now, but I do feel mildly regretful.  How many allusions to this have I missed?  How many did I catch, but not understand as fully as I might have?  I recall a story that quoted “Is this a dagger which I see before me…” verbatim, and based a horrible, torturous curse on a blade which is invisible to all but the victim.  If I could find that story again, I might find that scene to be richer than before.  I’ve also let references to Banquo’s ghost slip by, because who’s Banquo, and what’s his ghost up to?

1324275738_3326e947dc_b

But there are certain references that get explained somewhere or other – English classes,playgoers’ conversation, Startled By His Furry Shorts, etc.: witches tell Macbeth he’ll be king; prophecies get fulfilled one way or another; Lady Macbeth becomes a compulsive hand-washer; someone named Macduff gets addressed; and, if you read enough about Tolkien, apparently some copouts happen concerning the movement of Birnam Wood and the nature of vaginal childbirth vs. c-sections.  The former inspires the Ents, the latter Eowyn’s greatest moment.

Here are some things I missed until I’d read the text for myself:

– There was a moment where Macbeth thought “If chance will have me king, why, chance may crown me Without my stir.”  ‘If fate wants me to be king, maybe it’ll happen without me having to, you know, kill anyone.’  It’d make for a quieter play, presumably, but also a less direct plot.  I’m checking Ao3 to see if that fanfic’s been written yet.

– Despite the one moment of “Hmm, murder might not be necessary,” Macbeth really gets down to his bloody business quite swiftly.  I didn’t expect him to be Hamlet, but I also didn’t expect him to stab three people before the second act ends, hire a couple murderers to stab two more people in the third act, somehow get a third murderer involved (possibly to ensure the silence of the first two murderers, which means it’s turning into one of Doze Plans Vere You Lose You Hat) thereafter, and have all of Scotland at war by the end.  

– I read a few pages of lit crit, analyzing whether Macbeth is guiltless (or…less culpable, anyway) because his wife egged him on; these conclude that she didn’t take up the knife herself because her nerve failed her, and the fact that Macbeth did, in fact, stab a bunch of people indicates that it is not solely his wife’s ambition, but also his own, that drives him.  

– On account of this, it is the witches who say “By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes,” of Macbeth.  I had never realized that the witches say this line, for some reason, nor had I realized that in so doing, they are referring to Macbeth: a man so full of evil that he is no longer a man, and is above all else a wicked Unman.

– Macbeth’s ambition and how it plays out strikes me as somehow naive.  Okay, you’ve been hailed as king-to-be…but…is that throne what you really want, if you can’t have it without killing your kinsman and your friends in a complete inversion of every rule of hospitality?  Do you really want this power if everyone hates both how you acquired it and how you wield it?  One commentary on “She should have died hereafter. There would have been a time for such a word” submits that Macbeth recognizes how much shorter and unhappier his wife’s life became because of their actions.  Idjit.

– Relatedly, “To be thus is nothing, But to be safely thus” is a pretty ridiculous thing to say when you’ve killed so many people to BE thus.  There is nowhere to fly from death even when you aren’t a murderous villain, but, you know.  Being a murderous villain doesn’t really protect you from the people who frown on that sort of thing.  Killing a castle full of civilians just gives your enemies more motivation for revenge!

– Also seemingly foolish: to rely on “Laugh to scorn The power of man, for none of woman born Shall harm Macbeth” and “Macbeth shall never vanquished be until Great Birnam Wood to high Dunsinane Hill Shall come against him” without turning the verbiage inside and out.  I suppose we 21st-century readers have the benefit of centuries of hindsight/textual analysis here, but…I dunno, it’s not like they defined their terms for you.  “None of woman born Shall harm Macbeth,” but no one said you couldn’t get attacked by an animal, or a virus, or a natural disaster – leaving aside the verb “born” and how thin those hairs can be split.  Or, where the Wood is concerned…the 2015 film apparently involves Macduff burning the wood, and the ash thereof floats on the wind to the castle and retains its role as screening the soldiers’ numbers.  Or perhaps it could be made into paper.  If you’re going to be guilt-wracked and paranoid, then by golly be thorough about it.

In sum: Macbeth is a short but crazy ride, chock full of memorable lines and well worth the read.  May it take you less time to get around to it than it took me, and may you share all your own thoughts and reactions to it below!