A Time of Singing

Rise up, my love, my fair one,
And come away.
For lo, the winter is past,
The rain is over and gone.
The flowers appear on the earth;
The time of singing has come,
And the voice of the turtledove
Is heard in our land.
The fig tree puts forth her green figs,
And the vines with the tender grapes
Give a good smell,
Rise up, my love, my fair one,
And come away!
O my dove, in the clefs of the rock
In the secret places of the cliff,
Let me see your countenance,
Let me hear your voice;
For your voice is sweet,
And your countenance is lovely. 

Song of Solomon 2: 10 – 14
New King James Version

Today spring officially arrived in Northern California. The point of balance is tilted towards the light. The temperatures have been mild and the trees have been blooming for several weeks. What little rain we had this year is past.

The sun is slowly making its way northward and the mornings are filled with the sounds of chirping birds. Last week I heard the honk of geese heading north and today, outside my bedroom window, I heard the cooing of two doves – that low, slightly plaintive call they have that is so beautiful and so comforting.

Spring is the time of promise and new beginnings; a time to leave the past with its mistakes behind; to forgive ourselves and others for not being perfect and moving forward; a time of trust that the worst is over and better times lie ahead; a time of hope.

“Hope is a thing with feathers –
That perches in the soul –
And sings the tune without the words –
and never stops – at all –

Emily Dickinson

What song is your soul singing?

The Song of Solomon is part of the Holy Scripture for both Jews and Christians. Its structure has parallels with the pastoral idylls of Theocritus (3rd C BC) and shows the influence of Mesopotamian and Egyptian love poetry. Speculation places its composition form the 10th to 2nd centuries BC. The Song makes no reference to “Law”, “Covenant” or Yahweh, nor does it explore wisdom or history. Instead it celebrates human love, although over the years this interpretation has been replaced by the analogy of love between God and his people or his church. (Summarized from Wikipedia)

 

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After the Storm

On the second day after the storm
that drove the rain
in slanting horizontal bands
outside the window,
all is calm.

The creek whose waters
ran up and over its banks
to touch the brim of the gully
in which it resides, is now confined
and at peace.

The trees which bowed beneath
the power of the wind,
branches kneeling in submission,
now stand straight, limbs glistening
with kisses of small green buds.

The birds which were absent
from telephone lines and trees
now emerge singing
from bushes to preen their feathers
in the watery sunshine.

Dandelions are now scattered,
like a broken necklace,
across the chartreuse grass
while the dark pines, aloof,
look on.

The sky wears pale blue
on its cheeks and now smiles lightly
at passers-by who wear hats
and walk briskly and breathe deeply
in this chill February air.

Waiting for the Storm

We have been forewarned,
and this morning await inches
of drought-quenching rain.

The weekend, they say,
will have little sunshine
as rivers and streams and fields

gulp down this manna from heaven.
The morning sky is sullen,
bruised with blotchy greys.

Traveling north and east,
the wind is spoiling for a fight
like a young man hopped up on beer

and cigarettes and the smiles of a sexy girl.
The spring trees sporting white and pink
blossoms, two, three, four weeks

ahead of season may be stripped
of their finery before day’s end.
The neighborhood cat who stops by each morning

for a quick breakfast has already come
and gone, his patchy grey and white coat
reflecting the sky above.

The air is damp with bone-aching coolness
as I sit near the window and look out,
heating pad alternating between knees and shoulder.

The sky grows dark, a rumble and growl
of thunder, until one, then two rain drops fall,
announcing the imminent arrival of the storm king.

Mid-January Morning

Readers have asked me why my poems  are usually limited to what I see at the park – too much of a “sameness.”

I used to write poetry as a means of expressing my thoughts or opinions, purging deep emotions, telling my stories. Now I rarely get into philosophical discussions, describe the turbulence of life and relationships, make reference to current socio-political situations or injustices, or make comments of a personal nature. What poetry I write now is a by-product of sitting quietly and writing down my observations – very visual, very factual without much recourse to any ‘story’ behind what I see.

I am trying to disappear as a poet, as a presence in the poem – maybe exist as sort of an eye relating what is seen. Why? Because I am tired listening to and recording my thoughts – which often/always revolve around what I think, what I feel, what I want, my past, my future, me, me, me, etc., etc., ad infinitum. If I restrict myself to the visual, the constant chatter of the mind subsides and I feel peaceful. I now leave it to the reader to supply any story line or to give any meaning to the experience.

Here is what was seen the other day. Thanks for visiting.

Mid-January morning,
fog and dew burned away,
reveals a scattering of tiny suns
in the grass – dandelions.

Damp air
filled with the scent of clay and chlorophyll
and the endless twittering of unseen birds,
curls around oak’s gnarly limbs
that twist and turn like arthritic arms,
soaking up the sun that drives the sap
coursing through cellulose veins.

Look!
White dots are scattered
along black branches of graceful trees –
blossoms-in-waiting
soon to awake from winter dreams of summer.

Three squirrels
race up and down the trunk,
of the slender willow,
swing from branch to branch,
like drunken acrobats,
tails twitching, eyes sparkling.

Four city workers
wearing eye-blinding orange vests and baseball caps
set out lawn chairs beside the big tall pine,
open brown bags as they discuss the challenge
of keeping the waters flowing
through sewers that lie beneath
the black paved streets of a winter-soaked city.

Young brown girl
sports a sleek 1940’s pompadour,
curled and rolled above her delicate shoulders,
ear buds in, iPhone on,
in seeming conversation with the air,
sack purse swinging, smooth hips swaying,
young legs striding across the lawn
she moves to other destinations.

Black boy,
pants at half-mast, bandana round his head,
stands beside the hip hop van
with low rider wheels and dice on the dash,
greets a member of the ‘hood’
who arrives slouching and bopping
and snapping his fingers to the booming bass
that smites the air with impact and effect,
and shares the secret tribal handshake.

An old man
in a tattered gray coat
pushing a grocery cart with wobbling wheels
and piled high with fat plastic bags,
rumbles down the street and is followed
by a middle-aged woman
who jauntily holds aloft a gaily striped umbrella
and sings softly to herself.

Grandpa
totters, leading the way to the duck pond,
as the small shoes of the curly-haired girl
blink off and on at each hop and skip,
while Grandma smiles and follows,
walker clacking,
step, roll, pause – step, roll, pause

Little white dog
leashed to a large white woman
is tugged and pulled from enticing smells,
waves its feathery tail
and tosses its head and sets to shaking
ears that are caught up with pink pony-tail ribbons.

Two golden retrievers,
walking along in unison,
jump into a small white car
bearing “Go Kings” stickers –
and as it drives away
big orange heads
hang out of windows,
ears back, tongues lolling,
tails waving goodbye.

Bright, sparkling, clear day of winter

Bright, sparkling, clear day of winter,
the first day of the year at play
in this garden of Eden.

The rowdy wind flexes its muscles,
somersaults across the trees
and plays kick-the-can with leaves

as they clatter up and down the street.
Bright sparkling, clear day of winter,
beloved by pine trees and firs,

who shake their skirts and toss their heads
and straighten their aprons
in celebration of the new year’s arrival.

The winter sun wraps its chilling arms
around the dark oaks where mistletoe
hangs like giant Christmas balls

and reduces the ladylike white birch to a sleepy stupor.
The naked long-limbed branches of the willow
dance and sway side to side

across the small creek that carries sere leaves
and broken branches and autumn-colored ducks
that paddle around small rocks and yellow reeds.

The sharp sun beams through its blue sky portal
and sets in relief the street man
who rummages through trash barrels

for empty cans and bottles,
setting aside half-eaten sandwiches
and luncheon treats for later consumption

then throws the bulging black plastic bag
over his shoulder, making the bottles clink
as they settle down among the cans

while he walks to the empty playground
that waits in patient silence for the arrival
of the laughing children of spring.

Bright, sparkling, clear day of winter
shows the frosty breath
of the heavy-set, hip-jiggling girl in green

who jogs in the wake
made by long legs
of the young black boy

who slides and glides
along the slipstream of paths
while their stream of conversation

tacks back and forth
in the winter breeze
and startles the small dog with a wagging tail

who sits in a gray camper truck
that wears a kayak on its roof
and waits while the man with a plaid cap

unloads a silver and black tricycle,
long and low and elegant, then
slides down into the molded leather seat.

Man speeds off, dog racing alongside,
as a tall yellow pennant at the rear
whips in the cool breeze.

Bright, sparkling, clear day of winter
with swashes of chartreuse
streaking through the emerald grass

making eyes to squint to mute the vibrancy
while infinitesimal pin pricks of lights
dance behind closed eyes

blinking off and on, each a minute life
played out on a red stage
as the wind tosses and taunts and prods

to create the first poem
of the first day
of the new year.

 

Luminous Things

For some reason, Saturday evenings seem the perfect time for curling up in my bedroom chair and reading poetry. One of my favorite go-to books is “A Book of Luminous Things: An International Anthology of Poetry,” edited by Czelaw Milosz (1911 – 2004), a Polish poet, prose writer, translator and diplomat of Lithuanian origin who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1980.

After reading this collection many times, I finally got around to reading the book’s introduction where I found some very interesting and provocative observations about art and writing. In quoting Schopenhauer, Milosz states …

“Among works of painting, Schopenhauer assigned the highest place to Dutch still life: ‘This is shown by those admirable Dutch artists who directed this purely objective perception to the most insignificant objects, and established a lasting monument to their objectivity and spiritual peace in their pictures of still life, which the aesthetic beholder does not look on without emotion: for they present to him the peaceful, still frame of mind of the artist, free from will, which was needed to contemplate such insignificant things so objectively, to observe them so attentively, and to repeat this perception so intelligently.’

“The secret of all art, also of poetry, is, thus, distance.”

I pondered that last statement – the secret of art is distance – for quite a while. At first I felt I disagreed, thinking of the subjective art and writing so popular in the last century. But then I reconsidered. If I substituted the word detachment for the word distance, I saw another interpretation.

Any art that is too personal or too subjective runs the risk of egocentricity; one of the characteristics of great art is its universality. If an artist can create from a distant or detached position he will be in that peaceful, still place that invites the muse, and the audience, to enter.

In another section of the Introduction, Milosz says the Old Chinese and Japanese poetry has had a significant influence on American poetry since the turn of the century (20th). “Undoubtedly, what accounts for much is the very discovery that we can understand them, that through their lips eternal man speaks, that love, transience, death were the same then as now.”

This is exactly what I had discovered during my reading of the poetry in “The Book of Luminous Things.” I understood so many of the poems at an intimate level – the sadness of the Chinese traveler when parting from his friend 700 years ago is as real and immediate as it is today; the loss of the loved one just as poignant as that which took place a thousand years ago.

Good poetry enables us to speak to each other across the continents and across the centuries. What makes us human is not the color of our skin, not our politics, geography, philosophy or religion; it is our experience of this happening we call life.

After painting for the last several months, the quietness of autumn is drawing me back to words. As I reread some of my favorite poetry books, I’ll share them with you.

Winter Dawn by Tu Fu

The men and beasts of the zodiac
Have marched over us once more.
Green wine bottles and red lobster shells,
Both emptied, litter the table.
“Should auld acquaintance be forgot?” Each
Sits listening to his own thoughts,
And the sound of cars starting outside.
The birds in the eaves are restless,
Because of the noise and light. Soon now
In the winter dawn I will face
My fortieth year. Borne headlong
Towards the long shadows of sunset
By the headstrong, stubborn moments,
Life whirls past like drunken wildfire.

Poetry for a Hawk

This year’s season of the sun awakened a surprising appetite in me for poetry, all kinds of poetry – by those from other cultures, from other ages; romantic poetry and sacred poetry, by women and for women. In fact, I’ve read several anthologies, the latest being Norton’s Anthology of Modern Poetry, a weighty tome of nearly 2,000 pages.

I have degrees in English but in my early years my first love was fiction, not poetry. Perhaps it was all those epics like Paradise Lost, Faerie Queen, Idylls of the King that did me in. The strange words and syntax, classical allusions and lines that rhymed. I rarely, if ever, read poetry for pleasure except for the occasional foray into Kahlil Gibran or Pablo Neruda.

But this year for some reason my appetite has changed. Perhaps I have finally become old and/or wise enough to appreciate something of the soul of poetry. While fiction helps you escape life for a little while through vicariously living another’s, I think poetry can help you understand life more deeply.

One of the poets I have discovered on this journey is Robinson Jeffers (1887-1962). He was very popular in the first part of the 20th century but fell out of favor when he opposed the US participation in WWII. He lived in Carmel, one of the most beautiful coastal towns in California, and many of his poems speak of a deep appreciation of nature.

One of his recurring symbols was the hawk, a bird particularly close to my own heart as a symbol of freedom. Nearly 20 years ago when I was recovering from an illness, I learned to whistle like a hawk and discovered that they would often respond to my calling as they flew overhead.

In my reading of Jeffers I found a hawk poem that particularly moved me in its beauty and power, and although it is longer than I usually include in a post I am quoting it here in its entirety. I hope it resonates with you.

Hurt Hawks

I.
The broken pillar of the wing jags from the clotted shoulder,
The wing trails like a banner in defeat,
No more to use the sky forever but live with famine
And pain a few days: cat nor coyote
Will shorten the week of waiting for death, there is game without talons.
He stands under the oak-bush and waits
The lame feet of salvation; at night he remembers freedom
And flies in a dream, the dawns ruin it.
He is strong and pain is worse to the strong, incapacity is worse.
The curs of the day come and torment him
At distance, no one but death the redeemer will humble that head,
The intrepid readiness, the terrible eyes.
The wild God of the world is sometimes merciful to those
That ask mercy, not often to the arrogant.
You do not know him, you communal people, or you have forgotten him;
Intemperate and savage, the hawk remembers him:
Beautiful and wild, the hawks, and men that are dying, remember him.

II.

I’d sooner, except the penalties, kill a man than a hawk; but the great redtail
Had nothing left but unable misery
From the bone too shattered for mending, the wing that trailed under his talons when he moved.
We had fed him six weeks, I gave him freedom,
He wandered over the foreland hill and returned in the evening, asking for death,
Not like a beggar, still eyed with the old
Implacable arrogance. I gave him the lead gift in the twilight
What fell was relaxed,
Owl-downy, soft feminine feathers; but what
Soared: the fierce rush: the night herons by the flooded river cried fear at its rising
Before it was quite unsheathed from reality.