October 31, 2010 § 2 Comments

Brompton Cemetary, U.K. photo by Elise Thompson

Halloween: John Keats’ birthday; source of fond memories of being a black cat swashbuckling home with a brown grocery bag ¼ full of candy; and the Catholic reinvention of the Celtic festival Samhain, once celebrated on the full moon nearest the 1st of November. (It was Pope Gregory who had the brilliant idea of co-opting all pagan holidays and remaking them as Christian—he had an understanding of human nature sorely lacking in the papacy today.)

Samhain was believed to be the night when the souls of all who had died in the previous year passed through the gate to the underworld, and since gates swing both ways, it was also the night the dead could return. Food and drink were left out to propitiate them; people being what they are, some started dressing up as demons and ghosts to take these offerings.

Samahin was the most sacred holiday of the ancient Celts. You were supposed to celebrate by getting very drunk, and if you missed the holiday, you would probably go mad and die. Or so they said. Martin Luther, who choose October 31 to nail his 95 theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenburg (1517) probably thought otherwise.

What captures everyone’s imagination, though, is the idea of the barrier between the living and the dead being lifted. Was it less frightening to believe this happened only one night each year—that all the dead of that year had to wait? Did it ease terrors of attending deathbeds or burials? Or was it simply a way of explaining that feeling so many of us have, that our recent dead are still close by? When I was 9, and my brother died, my sister told me that when she and our parents were discussing his cremation, a box of matches on the mantelpiece suddenly flamed up. (Or at least that’s how I recall it. My sister often recalls things differently.) I loved the story mostly because it argued for his continued existence, but also it sounded like something he would do.

We want our dead to linger, but not forever, and we don’t want to think of ourselves stuck haunting an earth that will soon enough contain no people born while we were alive. So for our comfort, there must be an afterlife, however constructed and ruled, and souls must go there after some period of days or months. And if you follow the logic that far, it’s sensible to allow for the possibility of spirits returning once a year. There are lots of stories we want to tell that require the dead to offer counsel or comfort, or take revenge.

But think of this gateway with its comings and goings. The newly dead are on their way to an unknown place, while the old spirits are ascending for mayhem, message or frolic. Do they notice each other as they pass? Do the ones coming up stop to check out the new arrivals, while the young dead return the glances timidly? Who’s moving faster? How wide is the gate?

I’ve always preferred any version of this story to the one about a tunnel with a white light at the end, which apparently is not God but a cosmic Newcomers’ Lounge where you are received by your loved ones. The term “loved ones” is quite vague. Nobody ever distinguishes between the dead you loved, and the dead who loved you. What if the person you most loved never wanted anything to do with you in life? What if the ones waiting eagerly are those you’d most hoped not to see?

In older societies, of course, the distinction wouldn’t matter, because facing those who went before wasn’t framed as a day at the beach. Only facing God (for the worthy) was expected to be purely joyous. But in America we’re vague and mushy and so my friend Ann was dying, she went through great fear because the father who’d been so cruel to her, and held her heart in his clenched fist, had died not long before she was diagnosed with cancer. She’d finally felt free of him, able to be a whole person and adult. The idea of entering his presence again as a rookie was terrifying. Listening to her reminded me of those books where the dying person is in agony over the prospect of hellfire.

Far better to imagine hanging around home until the shock settles, then going with your new peer group, the new freshman class, through the gate into the vast metropolis of the dead. I think you’d want to stay with the others for awhile, then investigate the territory, look for the ones you want to look for, learn the rules and choices.

All this being said, there’s no answer for grief. There are only poems.


Body my house
my horse my hound
what will I do
when you are fallen

Where will I sleep
How will I ride
What will I hunt

Where can I go
without my mount
all eager and quick
How will I know
in thicket ahead
is danger or treasure
when Body my good
bright dog is dead

How will it be
to lie in the sky
without roof or door
and wind for an eye

With cloud for shift
how will I hide?

May Swenson

Close Quarters

October 29, 2010 § 1 Comment

Fitzroy Being Cute

Charles will be living here in two weeks. That still seems like an alternate reality. The human solitude of this apartment seems intrinsic to it now, as it did when I first rented it 26 years ago, taking it over from a recently deceased long-term tenant. It seemed tiny, coming from a 7-room house; now it seems big enough—for me.

But we lived here together for 16 years, and there were lots of good times. Granted, most of the good times took place outside the apartment. Still, in the late 80’s, we had New Year’s Eve dinners with six or eight friends, which I cooked in my closet kitchen. Whitney visited with her cat and we all survived the great fire, running down 12 flights and then having a 3 am breakfast at a diner just west of St. Marks Place. Jay and Andree came for the 4th of July and we watched the fireworks from the roof, back when you could still get on the roof (elevator, stairs, ladder). Ramona and Delilah came as little girls and were deeply envious of the newsstand selling candy in the lobby. Charles drew pictures of me sobbing during my therapy decade—great tears springing out from under my oversized glasses—and those drawings made up for all the now-incomprehensible infernal torment. Kind of.

Charles is happy now and I’m not unhappy, though I feel diminished in ways I can’t define, possibly as a result of the anti-depressants. But as “mature” as we may be, far more able to negotiate conflict, etc, I’ve grown used to quiet, to controlling the level of social interaction. Charles will talk. Not uninterestingly. I like his talk. But he’ll talk in the morning and at night and at noon and in the afternoon. When he’s silent on purpose to give me solitude I’ll imagine what he’s not saying. I’ll apologize for ignoring him even though he always laughs when I do that.

On the other hand, we’ll gossip about everyone we know and everyone we don’t, and about all the ideas we’re too tired to implement. We’ll reminisce to a degree no one else could tolerate. I’ll call, “Come here, the cat’s are being cute!” and he will, even though they’re cute all the time.

I need to make space for him, so I’m sorting through papers: what to throw out, what to move to storage. I find a very old, unfinished story about a young librarian, her sister Alice and an elderly lawyer (the librarian’s lover: conniving, vain) to whom the sisters mean harm. What then? There are lots of trees in the story. The other night, Merwin read his poem about his parents not knowing the names of trees, and talked about how they didn’t even know there were trees, not really.

I’m quite sure when I wrote the story, the trees were not as important as they seem now, reading it. I probably thought the sex was more important. I read a paragraph about the lawyer planning to take the librarian into the woods for a romp and all I can think of is: woods. I used to live in the woods.

I stop sorting, feeling sad in the old way, as if someone were coming, and has been indefinitely delayed. Not a person.

Humans are good at showing up.

The Sound of Trees

I wonder about the trees.
Why do we wish to bear
Forever the noise of these
More than another noise
So close to our dwelling place?
We suffer them by the day
Till we lose all measure of pace,
And fixity in our joys,
And acquire a listening air.
They are that that talks of going
But never gets away;
And that talks no less for knowing,
As it grows wiser and older,
That now it means to stay.
My feet tug at the floor
And my head sways to my shoulder
Sometimes when I watch trees sway,
From the window or the door.
I shall set forth for somewhere,
I shall make the reckless choice
Some day when they are in voice
And tossing so as to scare
The white clouds over them on.
I shall have less to say,
But I shall be gone.

Robert Frost

Merwin, Again

October 24, 2010 § Leave a comment

Today, W.S. Merwin is being inducted by the Library of Congress as Poet Laureate of the United States. Friday night, I went to hear him speak at the New York Public Library. I’ve been reading his poems for 36 years, since I took a contemporary poetry class taught by Russell Banks in my sophomore year of college (which I can’t thank you for enough, Russell, especially since I don’t have your email). I remember the semicircle of chairs, the way the lines fell on the page, being asked to read aloud and being afraid I didn’t understand the poems well enough to place the stresses properly. I wrote my final paper on Merwin as a Visionary Poet, struggling for insights that seem obvious now; the other night he saved his highest praise for Blake.

In the 70’s, Merwin was a man in his prime, often compared to a Greek God, though to me he’s always looked like what he in fact is, Welsh. “Merwin” means “friend of the sea.” Today he has downy white hair, a delicate, lovely face, and the kind of faultless courtesy that comes from having a truly top-shelf soul. In his presence I was a) overcome with love for him, and b) aware of everything I had failed to learn or do. I appreciated his erudition and his goodness in the way you only can when you’re old enough to know how precious both of those are, and how rare the combination is.

His stepson, John Burnham Schwartz, introduced him. Schwartz talked too long, but as Lisa kindly put it, he was laboring to explain just how amazing Merwin has been as a stepfather and mentor, and it was an impossible task. And since one of Merwin’s main themes for the evening was that poetry—and language—came into being to say what cannot be said, it was perhaps apropos that he rendered his stepson garrulous and his interviewer nearly mute, at least in the beginning.

Merwin talked about visiting Ezra Pound at St Elizabeth’s when he was 18, and knew little of Pound’s politics except that he had pissed off the authorities with his anti-American broadcasts, which the young Merwin saw as a good thing. Pound told him that if he wanted to be a poet, he should translate, because that’s the best way to learn one’s own language. Merwin has, of course, spent his life translating: he read one of his favorites, from his latest book, a poem attributed to the emperor Hadrian. “Little soul, little stray/ little drifter/now where will you stay/all pale and all alone/after the way/you used to make fun of things.”

He said he had decided to accept the Poet Laureateship, which has refused in past years, because of Obama. He thinks the things he wants to say—about the earth and vanishing species—have more of a chance to be heard. He also pointed out that Obama’s famous cool is a very Hawaiian thing, and that’s what the rest of us don’t get. (Merwin has lived on Maui for 30 years.) Discussing Humanity’s treatment of animals and plants, he became passionate, though he kept interrupting himself to say that he didn’t want to preach because his father was a preacher.

He talked a lot, as he writes a lot, about disappearance, how everything you see you are seeing for the first and the last time, and I struggled to know this as he does, with the body and instinct, but I couldn’t and can’t. This moment as I write is not opening up to me its utter uniqueness; instead I feel the weight of sameness, of Sunday, of a little boredom, pain in my knees, and the gallop of my faithful hounds of thought who keep bringing back the same slimy sneaker.

From a recent interview
Q: You seem continually astonished by nature, love, and words. What else astonishes you?

Merwin: What else is there?

Q: Any advice?

Merwin: Yes, one important thing: Read for pleasure. Read junk. Read every kind of book. But read for pleasure. The reason the Puritans wanted to stamp out poetry was because it gave pleasure. It’s about things you love, things that you care about. Sir Philip Sidney, in the generation before Shakespeare, said, “Poetry begins in delight and ends in wisdom.” And it will never end in wisdom if it doesn’t begin in delight and continue in delight. When you read a poem and you think, “God, that is so beautiful, I don’t want to forget that,” and you go on saying it to yourself because you love it, that’s pleasure. That is real pleasure.

–The Progressive

Apples and Wine

October 21, 2010 § 3 Comments

It’s richly autumn now, and the air is like wine. I know this is not a new simile. It’s one I used to be puzzled by. I didn’t think air was at all like wine—air was too free and fast and invisible. But as one gets older the light thickens. It slows down. The deepness in the afternoon sun, in October, is indeed like a goblet of wine: a Sancerre or a Chablis. A hint of overripe fruit rides the wind, even in New York City. Okay, I’m at the farmer’s market in Union Square. There are lots of bins of apples as well as Concord grapes. In the middle of Sixth Avenue, there wouldn’t be fruit on the air, although there would still be that honeyed light like the conversation of a 40-year-old courtesan played by Catherine Deneuve.

Actually I’m not at the Farmer’s Market anymore, and it’s quite dark outside. I’m remembering and I can feel the brain ants patiently taking apart the memories of the day, sorting them into piles with older memories, so that Keats’ Ode to Autumn, and all the autumn walks of my New Hampshire adolescence and Van Gogh paintings are getting mixed up with the apples and light and cars and the books I dropped off in the chute at Whole Foods, to be distributed to subway riders. I’ve given them my entire collection of post-Jungian psychology, those intricate, myth-inspired ramblings that meant so much to me at 35, and now seem entirely beside the point. Although, of course, now that they’re gone, I wonder. But I did keep Marie-Louise Von Franz’s On Dreams and Death, in case I need a booster.

I have an apple I could eat now, while listening to my little black cat sing for love—head tilted up, chin whiskers glistening, white teeth showing in the seam of her smile—while waiting for the orange cat to come knock her off the sofa top for presuming. I want it to be a perfect apple. I want it to taste like those apples that make you think Eve made a good deal. I’ve had apples like that, but I suspect the one I bought is not that good.

The brain ants come trundling in with the little memory bit that holds the apple cider doughnuts we ate at the farm stand the final weekend we were moving out of our house in the country. I’d been on a no-sugar diet for weeks, but after several days of hard physical labor I saw those doughnuts, fresh out of the boiling fat, and I bought three for a dollar and ate 2 and told Charles he was lucky to get any. Then we had to hang around until the next batch came out. I don’t remember if the air was like wine that day. I think it was probably like Heaven.

There is a gold light in certain old paintings

That represents a diffusion of sunlight.

It is like happiness, when we are happy.

It comes from everywhere and from nowhere at once, this light,

And the poor soldiers sprawled at the foot of the cross

Share in its charity equally with the cross.
Orpheus hesitated beside the black river.

With so much to look forward to he looked back.

We think he sang then, but the song is lost.

At least he had seen once more the beloved back.

I say the song went this way: O prolong

Now the sorrow if that is all there is to prolong.
The world is very dusty, uncle. Let us work.

One day the sickness shall pass from the earth for good.

The orchard will bloom; someone will play the guitar.

Our work will be seen as strong and clean and good.

And all that we suffered through having existed

Shall be forgotten as though it had never existed.

–Donald Justice

St. Francis Day at the Cathedral

October 4, 2010 § 3 Comments

We sat behind a goat named Doni and next to a brown-haired dog, listening to the Dean of The Cathedral of St. John the Divine talk about the need to respect animals and the earth.

Oh, I do. I wonder what I’m doing here in the city when I could be tending goats on a lonely hillside, munching my bread and cheese and dreaming of faraway places. 20 years ago, I saw a goat-sired mountain sheep in Ireland that I remember vividly and often—and believe is still standing in the same fog, behind the beehive tomb.

I would have taken my cats to be blessed—just for the experience, they aren’t believers—but cats don’t care for cathedrals, unless they’re empty. And even empty would be too much for my apartment felines, whose brains have been shaped by small spaces and lots of clutter. They like to lick plastic bags, sleep on dirty clothes and chase fruit flies.

The camel was majestic, stately and a little bored, like an old actor doing his signature role for an adoring audience. The yak needed a clean up crew. The sheep baa-ed, the donkeys trudged, the tortoise was wheeled in on a cart, and the snake was draped like a priestly vestment around the neck of one of the vergers.

The Cathedral choir, school choirs, and the Paul Winter consort provided music accompanied by the song of the humpbacked whale, and the howl of a wolf; The Omega Dance Company and the Forces of Nature Dance Theater danced down the aisle and to the altar, past row upon row of people with their dogs on their laps or at their feet, and in cages hamsters, rabbits, geese, a few ferrets…

The Dean said, “How we treat animals reflects how we will treat each other,” but that isn’t it at all. I just think that you don’t believe a camel belongs in a cathedral, how can you appreciate poetry? The goat enjoyed himself the most of all the animals, and more than the young children. He chewed on the program and found it good. The dark-haired llama, on the other hand, sneered at the Dean who’d grown confident in his animal-whispering skills after soothing a frightened ostrich. The young girls clutched their bunnies and geese. And the spotted pigs frisked about the altar with gay abandon.

Outside, at one of the animal non-profit tables, a woman intoned, “People are animals too. People are animals, too.”

St. Francis, as you know, preached to the birds; he also tried to convert Muslims to Christianity, which was just as effective. The Catholic Encyclopedia describes him in his youth, “No one loved pleasure more than Francis; he had a ready wit, sang merrily, delighted in fine clothes and showy display. Handsome, gay, gallant, and courteous, he soon became the prime favourite among the young nobles of Assissi, the foremost in every feat of arms, the leader of the civil revels, the very king of frolic.”

Then he gave his father’s money to the church (without consent), was disowned and became a saint.

The Adventures of a Turtle

The turtle carries his house on his back. He is both the house and the person of that house.

But actually, under the shell is a little room where the true turtle, wearing long underwear, sits at a little table. At one end of the room a series of levers sticks out of slots in the floor, like the controls of a steam shovel. It is with these that the turtle controls the legs of his house.

Most of the time the turtle sits under the sloping ceiling of his turtle room reading catalogues at the little table where a candle burns. He leans on one elbow, and then the other. He crosses one leg, and then the other. Finally he yawns and buries his head in his arms and sleeps.

If he feels a child picking up his house he quickly douses the candle and runs to the control levers and activates the legs of his house and tries to escape.

If he cannot escape he retracts the legs and withdraws the so-called head and waits. He knows that children are careless, and that there will come a time when he will be free to move his house to some secluded place, where he will relight his candle, take out his catalogues and read until at last he yawns. Then he’ll bury his head in his arms and sleep….That is, until another child picks up his house….

Russell Edson

Where Am I?

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