“Seen From Above”

On a dirt road lies a dead beetle.
Three little pairs of legs carefully folded on his belly.
Instead of death’s chaos –neatness and order.
The horror of this sight is mitigated,
the range strictly local, from witchgrass to spearmint.
Sadness is not contagious.
The sky is blue. 

For our peace of mind, their death seemingly shallower.
Animals do not pass away, but simply die,
losing – we wish to believe – less of awareness and the world,
leaving – it seems to us – a stage less tragic.
Their humble little souls do not haunt our dreams,
they keep their distance,
know their place.

So here lies the dead beetle on the road,
glistens unlamented when the sun hits.
A glance at him is as good as a thought;
he looks as though nothing important had befallen him.
What’s important is valid supposedly for us.
For just our life, for just our death,
a death that enjoys an extorted primacy.

 Seen From Above, Wislawa Szymborska, 1921 –

I stumbled upon this poem the other day and found it quite touching for the modesty of its subject – not many poems are written about the lowly beetle – and because it reminded me of a short essay I wrote a year or two ago on a similar topic. My experience was not seeing a dead beetle but a beetle in the process of dying. (See Archives 2012, August 9)

“animals do not pass away, but simply die.” I like the irony Szymborska uses when she infers that the beetle’s death is so much less in importance than our own. Their death need not be draped in euphemism but baldly declared. The lowly beetle knows its place in the hierarchy of value. Its death is of little importance in the grand scheme of things. In contrast, how important we believe ourselves, how world-changing our own demise.

Yet when “seen from above” does not the same life which animates our hearts, also animate the beetles of the world, and the trees and rocks and birds? Isn’t the one life that connects us all, the one life that is All That Is? Perhaps this hierarchy of life in which we imagine ourselves as the evolutionary edge is, in fact, not a vertical structure but a horizontal configuration that moves from the center outward in all directions at once with no one form having primacy, all being equal and equally loved.

And, if by chance, we fulfill those dire prophecies of Armageddon who can say the world will miss our heavy footsteps and loud quarreling voices. Perhaps the meek will one day inherit the earth.



Flag Day

A Sight in Camp in the Daybreak Gray & Dim

A sight in camp in the daybreak gray and dim,
As from my tent I emerge so early sleepless,
As slow I walk in the cool fresh air the path near by the hospital tent,
Three forms I see on stretchers lying, brought out there untended lying,
Over each the blanket spread, ample brownish woolen blanket,
Gray and heavy blanket, folding, covering all.

Curious I halt and silent stand,
Then with light fingers I from the face of the nearest the first just lift the blanket:
Who are you elderly man so gaunt and grim, with well-grey’d hair, and flesh all sunken about the eyes?
Who are you my dear comrade?

Then to the second I step – and who are you my child and darling?
Who are you sweet boy with cheeks yet blooming? 

Then to the third – a face nor child nor old, very calm, as of beautiful yellow-white ivory;
Young man I think I know you – I think this face is the face of the Christ himself,
Dead and divine and brother of all, and here again he lies.

Walt Whitman

This poem would have been a good selection for Memorial Day but I didn’t find it until the other day when perusing a book titled, “A Book of Luminous Things,” an anthology of international poetry edited by Czelsaw Milosz, Nobel Prize winner in Literature. But I think the sentiments of brotherhood expressed also serves for Flag Day.

We don’t really celebrate Flag Day much – ever since the Vietnam War and the days of flag burning I think there has been a confusion between patriotism and nationalism. Love of country, which is patriotic and can be symbolized by a flag, seems to me to be a good thing and one that is bred into our bones – who can forget where they spent their childhood – whether those years were good or bad? Who can ever leave behind what is held within in the word “home,” the emotional landscape of our life.

In Whitmans’ poem we are reminded of the great brotherhood of man whether those ties are felt on the battlefield or around the kitchen table. I, for one, am grateful for this land of ours and the opportunity to live here. As a people we are certainly not perfect and have made, and continue to make, bad choices – but the mountains and lakes, the rivers and valleys, the great vastness of this land and the inherent brotherhood of our people are worth celebrating.

MILES TO GO 9X13Side Note: I learned yesterday that one of my ink wash paintings, Miles to Go, has been selected by the 9th National Exhibition held at Axis Gallery in Sacramento in August. It is one of 58 pieces chosen from more than 1300 submitted.